Ann Maher and Jonathan Bilyk Sep. 6, 2016, 3:20pm

A new study published by the Illinois Civil Justice League shows that campaign contributions from trial lawyers to Illinois politicians and judges topped $35.25 million during the past 15 years.

The courts in Cook County, along with those in downstate Madison and St. Clair counties, near St. Louis, host the state’s highest concentrations of civil litigation, factor prominently in "Justice for Sale III," a report analyzing campaign contributions made by the plaintiffs' bar and the profound impact they have in state, county and local governance and in keeping the judiciary in Democratic control.

The ICJL released its findings at a press conference in Chicago Tuesday morning, in conjunction with Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch (ILAW) and the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA).

Results of the study show that in addition to the $6 million contributed through the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association (ITLA) legislative political action committee, the top 25 Illinois plaintiffs’ firms and their lawyers, together with their family members, collectively invested another $29 million in the campaigns of Illinois office seekers from January 2001 through March 2016.

The campaign contributions have gone to legislators, constitutional officers, judges, state’s attorneys, county board chairmen, circuit clerks, county party chairmen, mayors, union leaders and politically allied special interests.

Locally, personal injury attorneys and firms were among the most prolific campaign contributors in Illinois politics. The Clifford Law firm, of Chicago, for instance, collectively donated about $4.6 million to political campaigns in the past 15 years. Elsewhere in the state, the Simmons firm, of Alton, donated the most of all law firms, the ICLJ said, with gifts to candidates totaling almost $5 million during that time frame. Other big givers in the state included the firms of Korein Tillery, of St. Louis, and Keefe, of Belleville.

The ICLJ reported seven law firms topped $1 million in giving, and a dozen gave more than $500,000 over the past 15 years.

John Pastuovic, president of ICJL, called the flow of lawyer contributions "truly staggering," estimating that the $35 million spent in the last 15 years equates roughly to $264 spent every hour in that span of time.

Justice for Sale III also shows that more than 98 percent of trial lawyers’ donations were directed to "the most powerful incumbent politicians in Springfield and other Democrats," according to Pastuovic.

Members of House and Senate Judiciary committees - which determine what legislative proposals related to civil litigation will advance in their respective chambers - also are targeted by the plaintiffs' bar with heavy contributions, according to the report. 

In the Illinois House, three special campaign funds operated by House Speaker Michael J. Madigan reaped more than $658,000 in donations from the ITLA Legislative PAC, while funds run by Illinois Senate President John Cullerton and his predecessor, Emil Jones, took in about $713,000 from the PAC during the past 15 years. 

“While ITLA’s PAC and plaintiffs’ firms donated millions, policymakers they supported made Illinois’ tort laws even more to the trial lawyers’ liking,” Pastuovic stated. “During the study period, Madison County set an infamous national record for the most new class-action filings in a year, and a statewide medical liability crisis threatened critical care for Illinois patients."

Because of its national asbestos docket - the busiest in the country - the ICJL report ranks Madison County as having the highest litigation index in the state with 8.255 lawsuits filed per 1,000 residents. Cook County's index is 4.014 lawsuits per 1,000 residents and St. Clair County is 2.416 per 1,000 residents.

By comparison, the litigation index for the state's other 64 counties is 1.239 per 1,000 residents.

Judicial candidates also reaped relatively large sums from ITLA and its members, as well. The ICLJ report indicated Cook County Democratic judicial candidates received more than $1.9 million in non-PAC donations from the state's top plaintiffs' law firms and their members.Statewide, the top personal injury law firms donated more than $7 million to candidates seeking a spot on the bench. About 97 percent of that total went to Democratic candidates, the ICLJ report said.

Other findings in Justice for Sale III show that in counties such as Madison, St. Clair and Cook, dollars-per-capita judicial campaign spending equaled between $3 and $5 per resident. But in areas outside of these counties, judicial campaign spending amounted to less than a dime-per-resident over the same 15-year study period.

“Interesting if not surprising is the fact that the biggest trial lawyer donations supported campaigns in Cook, Madison and St. Clair counties – each widely known as once and future Judicial Hellholes,” Pastuovic stated. “And when one considers that these counties also host the state’s highest concentrations of lawsuits, it’s fair to ask: Is justice for sale in Illinois?”

Also noted in the study is the influence of trial lawyer donations to campaigns for mayor and municipal offices, including more than $500,000 to local Illinois mayoral campaigns and nearly $250,000 for other municipal races. Some of these donations flowed into Chicago and suburban communities, including Aurora, Des Plaines, Berwyn, Bloomingdale, Cicero, Elgin, Elmhurst, Evergreen Park, Hazel Crest, Highland Park, Hinsdale, Inverness, Lake Forest, Lake Villa, Lombard, Melrose Park, Norridge, North Riverside, Orland Park, Park Ridge, Plainfield, Schaumburg, Thornton, Waukegan, Western Springs and Winnetka. Candidates in Rockford also received donations from ITLA, the report said.

The report further shows that top trial lawyer donations also extend to elections involving county chairmen, auditors, board of review members, states attorneys, treasurers and sheriffs in 17 Illinois counties, with more than $1.8 million donated to Democratic officials, $55,200 donated to Republican officials and $500 to independent campaign in Cook County.

Donations were heaviest in Madison, St. Clair and Cook counties. For instance, sizable donations were made mostly to incumbent county officials in Cook ($1,270,948), Madison ($421,264) and St. Clair ($99,691) counties.

The report says that these three counties account for 95 percent of the total trial lawyer donations to county candidates. The other 14 counties represented in the donations account for the other five percent.

The release of Justice for Sale III prompted ATRA to issue a "special" Judicial Hellholes, an annual rating of what the group considers to be the most unfair civil court jurisdictions in the country.

“Madison, St. Clair and Cook counties have been featured regularly in the American Tort Reform Association’ extensively documented reporting on some the nation’s most unfair civil court jurisdictions,” stated ATRA president Tiger Joyce. “So the findings of Justice for Sale, quantifying as they do a disturbing level of influence exerted by the plaintiffs’ bar on the judges in these counties and lawmakers in Springfield, are particularly troubling to us."

“As more jobs- and tax revenue-providing businesses are targeted by often speculative and sometimes fraudulent litigation in the state’s Judicial Hellholes,” Joyce continued, “it will become that much harder for Illinois to solve its mounting debt problems. So we would encourage leaders in Illinois to begin taking meaningful steps to address imbalances throughout the state’s civil justice system.”

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Organizations in this Story

Simmons Hanly Conroy
1 Court St
Alton, IL 62002

Clifford Law Offices, P.C.
120 North La Salle Street, 31st Floor
Chicago, IL 60602

Illinois Civil Justice League (ICJL)
110 Schiller Street
Elmhurst, IL 60126

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