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Thursday, March 17, 2005 09:31 pm

Heaven or hellhole?

Take your pick: Lawyers are either responsible for all of Illinois’ economic misery and job losses or they’re selfless champions of the less fortunate who wouldn’t dream of taking advantage of the legal system.

That’s the gist of the latest round in the continuing national battle over lawsuit reform, also known as tort reform. Once again, Illinois and the downstate county of Madison are on the front lines.

The latest flare-up was sparked by the release last week of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s annual ranking of states on the basis of “legal fairness.” The Chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform said Illinois ranked 46th in the nation, a drop of 12 places in three years. The survey included Cook County and the St. Louis metro counties of Madison and St. Clair among the nation’s 15 worst local jurisdictions.

The rankings were based on a telephone survey of attorneys working for large corporations and insurance companies — lawyers who generally have an interest in reducing the number of liability lawsuits and limiting damage awards.

In addition to the poor showing among corporate attorneys, the Chamber notes that the litigation-friendly reputation could drive businesses out of the state. It offers up a reminder that almost 78,000 jobs have been lost in Illinois since November 2001. “Illinois’ legal system is badly flawed, is getting worse, and needs to be fixed,” said Thomas J. Donohue, Chamber president, in a statement.

Even as the Chamber’s press release was faxed and e-mailed to hundreds of news organizations, the Chicago-based Center for Justice & Democracy Illinois was blasting the Chamber’s attack as flawed and unfair. Illinois, the organization noted, had the third-best business climate in the country in 2004, according to Site Selection, a magazine devoted to the subject of corporate real estate. And workers in Madison County, which the Chamber last year dubbed a “judicial hellhole,” saw wages climb by nearly 9 percent, on average, last year.

Center staff director Amber Hard says the Chamber seems “utterly unconcerned” with the state’s actual business climate or the impact its survey may be having on communities.

The Center for Justice & Democracy Illinois is an offshoot of the New York-based Center for Justice & Democracy, which has been around since 1998 and counts filmmaker Michael Moore and brassy legal investigator Erin Brockovich as advisors. Its goal is to challenge corporate-led attacks on the civil-justice system. The Illinois operation was launched this year.

The point-counterpoint won’t end with this round.

Along with the survey results, the U.S. Chamber announced plans for another ad campaign in support of tort reform.

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