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Court Has Dubious Record As a Class-Action Leader
By Adam Liptak
The courts of Madison County, Ill., are famously hospitable, in a Will Rogers sort of way. They have, their critics say, never met a class-action lawsuit they did not like.
The county, which borders the Mississippi in southwest Illinois, is, according to a study published in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, the nation's leader in class-action filings on a per capita basis. Susan Koniak, who teaches legal ethics at Boston University, attributed the county's popularity to the local judiciary's propensity to approve settlements that may benefit plaintiffs' lawyers and defendants more than the plaintiffs themselves.
"Madison County judges are infamous for approving anything put before them, however unfair to the class or suggestive of collusion that is," Ms. Koniak said.
For example, a recent settlement here of a class action against the manufacturer of televisions said to have fuzzy pictures provided most claimants with $25 or $50 coupons good toward purchases of products costing more than $100. The lawyers got $22 million. The case is on appeal.
"There is mounting evidence that what happens in these cases is that the class does not get anything," said John H. Beisner, a lawyer at O'Melveny & Myers in Washington who represents corporate defendants in class actions and is an author of the Harvard study, which was commissioned by the Manhattan Institute. "It's a capital transfer from defendants to plaintiffs' lawyers."
The notion that the Madison County Circuit Court does not render scrupulously fair justice offends Nicholas Byron, a judge here. Judge Byron used a hearing on the fairness of a particularly controversial proposed settlement today to defend the court, in sometimes angry terms, against what he called "attacks on the court in Madison County."
"This court will not be affected by any public relations output in this case or any other case," he said. "This court will not be intimidated."
In the case before him, Judge Byron said he was concerned only with providing compensation to the people who were persuaded, through telemarketing and mailings, to enter contests and buy stakes in foreign lotteries by James Blair Down, a Canadian businessman. According to an indictment of Mr. Down in violations of gambling laws, his victims sent him almost $120 million.
In 1998, Mr. Down pleaded guilty to conspiring to mail gambling materials, and he agreed to pay restitution of more than $12 million. He served six months in an Oregon prison. A Canadian judge said he left there a "very wealthy man."
Mr. Down's wealth, his admissions in the criminal case and the large number of people with relatively small claims against him attracted the attention of a leading class-action firm, Ness, Motley, Loadholt, Richardson & Poole. The firm, based in South Carolina, gained fame in asbestos and tobacco litigations.
The class-action suit it filed in Madison County in March 2000 alleged that Mr. Down and his associates had obtained more than $200 million from their customers, "most of whom were elderly or in declining mental or physical health." Court records suggest that at least 400,000 people were victimized.
In August of that year, Judge Byron froze assets of Mr. Down's worth about $50 million.
©2002 The New York Times
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