Ill. Judge Removed from Asbestos Docket Over Campaign Contributions

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Updated: Barbara Crowder, a circuit judge in Madison County, Ill., who had the court’s asbestos docket, was removed from overseeing the cases yesterday, after it was revealed that three law firms focusing on asbestos cases gave her $30,000 in campaign contributions.

According to the Belleville News-Democrat, Crowder on Dec. 1 signed an order that gave the three law firms the majority of trial slots on the 2013 asbestos docket. A few days later, the newspaper reports, lawyers from those firms–Gori Julian & Associates, Goldenberg Heller Antognoli & Rowland and the Simmons Law Firm–gave campaign contributions to Crowder. The donations per lawyer were between $5,000 and $1,000 a piece.

“A situation was brought to my attention, and following consultation with the circuit judges we unanimously decided to change some civil assignments to maintain the public trust in a fair and unbiased judiciary,” Madison County Chief Judge Ann Callis told the News-Democrat.

Representatives from the three law firms could not be reached for comment, nor could Crowder and her husband/campaign committee chairman, Lawrence Talaina, according to the News-Democrat.

Madison County repeatedly has been tagged a plaintiff-friendly “judicial hellhole” by various tort reform groups. Ed Murnane, president of the Illinois Civil Justice League, told the newspaper that plaintiff firms use the asbestos trial slots to market themselves.

“You can sell the fact to a prospective client that you already have time in a courtroom,” he said.

Lisa A. Rickard, president of the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform, a tort reform group that is an arm of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in a press release that the trial slot system “in effect puts court time up for sale” and should be done away with.

“For at least a decade, the Madison County Asbestos docket calendar has assigned case slots to plaintiffs’ lawyers without actual court cases, creating a type of asbestos lawsuit futures market of immense value to those plaintiffs’ firms who have been assigned court slots,” Rickard said. “When Judge Crowder inherited the Madison County asbestos docket last year, many were hopeful that she would clean up this warped system. That didn’t happen.”

Updated at 3:53 p.m. to include material from U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform press release.

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