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Class-Action Suits Soar In Madison County, Study Says; Think Tank Argues For Moving Cases To Federal Court
by Jim Getz
Madison County's reputation for attracting class-action lawsuits has drawn the attention of a conservative group that sees it as the perfect example of why such suits should be tried in federal, not state, courts.
In a study released Monday, The Manhattan Institute's Center for Legal Policy said Madison County—long known as a "plaintiffs paradise" because of favorable consideration toward people suing corporations—had the highest number of class-action suits filed per capita of any county in the United States. And that, the think tank argues, has legal ramifications across the nation.
The report concludes that Madison County has been "asked over the last two years to set national policy on issues that could affect the daily lives of millions of Americans throughout the country—from what water they drink to how much they pay for their next insurance policy or telephone bill—all from a small courthouse in southwest Illinois." Local trial lawyers mostly disagreed with the study's conclusion but were not surprised by it.
"It's not unusual, in light of some of the proposed legislation to take away the rights of states to hear class actions and force them into the federal courts," said Mark C. Goldenberg, whose firm, Hopkins Goldenberg, has filed several class-action suits in Madison County Circuit Court.
Belleville lawyer Bruce Cook said the federal court system was "bursting at the seams right now" and might not have room for the class-action suits. Cook's firm does not directly file class-action suits but is acting as local counsel on some filed by out-of-town firms.
"The federal court system is involved in drug interdiction and sending crack dealers to jail," he said. "I don't know if they have time for civil litigation."
Goldenberg acknowledged that Madison was a "working man's community" but noted that bias there would come into play by jurors.
All of the class-action suits he has been involved in, he said, have been settled before going to trial.
And that's where judges come in.
"I don't think our judges have shown anything in the class-action area other than they work hard and try to be impartial," he said. "I haven't seen any bias. . . . It's not a county that's biased toward plaintiffs, but it's a recognition by the defendants that they don't want to try their case in a courtroom."
The Manhattan Institute study found that in 1999, a total of 16 class-action suits were filed in the county of 258,000, making a rate of 61.8 cases per million population.
By contrast, the 2,133 class-action suits in the entire federal court system were at a rate of 7.6 cases per million. In 2000, the number of cases filed in Madison County rose to 39.
That's the same number that already had been filed this year as of Monday, with the projected number of cases by the end of the year at 56.
Judy Pendell, director of the Center for Legal Policy, does not buy the argument that federal judges would be overwhelmed if class-action suits—which generally involve plaintiffs and defendants from many states—were moved to the federal judiciary.
"Federal judges have many more resources than state judges do," she said. "They have two or three clerks, plus they can assign a magistrate to handle some cases."
She also argued that the cases are big and complicated and require federal judges familiar with laws governing many states.
As for the argument that cases ought to be heard in state courts first, she said, "The framers inserted the commerce clause (into the Constitution) for a very good reason. They had a concern that defendants (the corporations) might get 'hometowned' in the state courts. There's a long tradition that if you have an interstate case, it belongs in the federal courts."
Circuit Judge Andreas Matoesian, acting chief judge this week while Circuit Judge P.J. O'Neill is out of town, said it would be improper for him or any other judge to comment on the study.
©2001 St. Louis Post-Dispatch
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