EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. (Legal Newsline) - Madison County, Ill., Board Member Mike Walters told Madison County Chief Judge Ann Callis and members of the county judiciary meeting Friday morning that being on an annual Judicial Hellhole list "scares the hell out of me."
Walters, a Republican, has called for the resignation of Madison County Circuit Judge Barbara Crowder, who was removed as the court's asbestos judge after accepting campaign contributions from plaintiff's law firms.
Lawyers from the county's three biggest asbestos firms - Simmons, Goldenberg and Gori & Julian - contributed a total of $30,000 just days after Crowder had entered a favorable ruling for them last month. The county's reputation as a haven for asbestos lawsuits has placed it on the American Tort Reform Foundation's Judicial Hellholes report several times.
Walters and Callis debated for about 45 minutes at the committee's monthly meeting.
"I'm saying that this asbestos docket is killing us," Walters told reporters after the meeting. "I'd love to see Madison County boom. We have rivers, highways and airports. Why aren't people flocking here? I've heard it's the judicial system.
"To me, this is a serious problem."
Callis sat with Associate Judge Steve Stobbs on her right and Circuit Clerk Matt Melucci on her left.
"We can't tell firms not to file cases here," Callis said.
"It isn't illegal for a judge to take campaign donations."
Crowder, who said on Dec. 14 that she would return the money, has denied doing anything that would have violated the code of judicial conduct.
In addition to Walters calling for Crowder's resignation, Madison County Board Chairman Alan Dunstan last month called for an investigation by the Illinois Judicial Inquiry Board (JIB).
A Dec. 28 letter from the JIB in response to Dunstan was passed around at the meeting.
The JIB confirmed that it had received a complaint against "an Illinois state court judge" and would determine if an investigation is warranted.
Details of "any investigation" are not to be shared, the letter stated, and only those documents filed with the commission during a prosecution become public record.
After the board reaches a decision, Dunstan can expect a written notification, the letter stated.
On Dec. 12, Callis reassigned Crowder to handle chancery, miscellaneous remedies and eminent domain cases.
At Friday's meeting, Callis countered Walters by saying that in the past five years, four asbestos jury trials have resulted in defense verdicts.
"The asbestos docket represents less than one percent of all cases going through Madison County, not that there are not issues," she said.
She assured the committee that with the new judge (Clarence Harrison) "everything will be looked at."
Walters then stated he wasn't blaming Callis.
"When we appear on the judicial hellhole list, that scares the hell out of me," Walters said. "It appears we're giving out dates to attorneys. My biggest concern is that we're working more to help people who aren't in Madison County than people who are."
A vast majority of asbestos lawsuits filed in Madison County, the busiest state court asbestos docket in the country, are from out of state residents.
Walters pointed out that when businesses see the hellhole list, they believe it.
Walters commended Callis for her quick action in removing Crowder from the asbestos docket.
"I do defend you, and I get my rear end chewed out," he said. "A lot of people have asked, and I don't think I'm the first person to ask, for her resignation."
Also at the meeting was a representative from the state's attorney's office and Madison County Sheriff Bob Hertz.