Thursday, December 27, 2007

Cook County a "Judicial Hellhole"?

The American Tort Reform Foundation (ATRF) has published a new report labeling the Circuit Court of Cook County as a "Judicial Hellhole." The report has become an annual event; Madison and St. Clair Counties in downstate Illinois have been recipients of this dubious honor in prior years.

This year's report has again attracted national attention; here is a link to a December 24 article in the New York Times article about the report. (The article is reprinted in the December 27 edition of the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.)

The ATRF report defines "Judicial Hellholes" as "places where judges systematically apply laws and court procedures in an unfair and unbalanced manner, generally against defendants in civil lawsuits. The jurisdictions discussed in this report are not the only Judicial Hellholes in the United States; they are merely the worst offenders. These cities, counties or judicial districts are frequently identified by members of the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) and individuals familiar with the litigation."

"Judicial Hellhole" is such a catchy phrase that it has been registered as a trademark of ATRA; the use of the terms was licensed to ATRF by ATRA for its attack on Cook County and the other jurisdictions slammed in the current report.

ATRA, according to its website, "was co-founded in 1986 by the American Medical Association and the American Council of Engineering Companies."

So: What does ATRF offer in support of its contention that Cook County "judges systematically apply laws and court procedures in an unfair and unbalanced manner, generally against defendants in civil lawsuits?" ATRF cites three reasons (pp. 9-11). First, "Trial Lawyers Cash in on Grief." Second, a "Cook County Judge Throws Out Illinois Medical Liability Reform." Third, a "Mixed Bag of Excessive Verdicts."

The first charge refers to an amendment passed this year to the Wrongful Death Act, 740 ILCS 180/1 et seq. Section 2 of the Act was amended to permit juries in such cases to consider, as elements of damage, the "grief, sorrow, and mental suffering" of "the surviving spouse and next of kin of the deceased person."

One might construct a reasoned argument that this amendment will have adverse consequences for Illinois businesses. One might even ask why the legislature found itself able to meddle with the Wrongful Death Act when it could not pass a budget and still can not pass mass transit relief. But even accepting that many of the sponsors of the amendment were from Cook County, how can this legislative action be used to besmirch the reputation of the hundreds of judges sitting in Cook County?

When last I heard, trial judges have an obligation to apply the laws of this State as written, whether the laws are wise or foolish, so long as the laws are constitutional. Is ATRF against this?

Maybe it's against judges determining constitutional challenges... at least that's one way of understanding ATRF's second objection, that "a Cook County court has invalidated a state legislative limit on potentially infinite pain and suffering awards in medical malpractice cases."

I have not carefully studied the most recent cap statute or Cook County Circuit Judge Diane Joan Larsen's opinion finding that statute wanting; for that reason I venture no opinion on whether Judge Larsen called it right or wrong... but caps statutes have twice before been invalidated by the Illinois Supreme Court. Surely ATRF would expect judges to follow precedent in reaching decisions, right?

And even if -- even if -- Judge Larsen was entirely off base in her ruling, how does that one ruling show, generally, that Cook County "judges systematically apply laws and court procedures in an unfair and unbalanced manner, generally against defendants in civil lawsuits?"

The last and final reason why ATRF says Cook County is a "Judicial Hellhole" is that there were some very large verdicts in Cook County this past year. Some anecdotes are shared. Why the verdicts in the particular cases were large is largely not addressed.

ATRF asks what makes a "Judicial Hellhole" -- and answers its own question this way (p. 1): It's the judges. "While most judges honor their commitment to be unbiased arbiters in the pursuit of truth and justice," the report says, "judges in Judicial Hellholes do not. These few judges may simply favor local plaintiffs’ lawyers and their clients over defendant corporations."

This is an extraordinary charge. But the gaudy charges against the Cook County judiciary are unsubstantiated by the ATRF report. If the ATRF report were a lawsuit, it might be sneered at as frivolous litigation.
Accompanying illustrations taken from the ATRF report.

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