- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 28, 2010

While Hollywood keeps churning out movies featuring villainous businessmen and financiers, the real world’s more parasitic greed merchants are the big-money class-action plaintiffs lawyers. Stories about attorneys raking in millions while their clients receive pennies aren’t the stuff of fiction. This year’s edition of “Judicial Hellholes,” an annual report of the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA), contains accounts of perfidious trial lawyers and the judges who enable them.

The Dec. 14 report identifies states and localities where unfair “jackpot justice” reigns supreme, creating a risky business climate that makes employers and their jobs flee elsewhere. By separating legal liability from actual responsibility, these hellholes substitute legal bluster for justice to the benefit of nobody but the lawyers and the judges whose campaigns they finance.

Consider the May approval by St. Louis Circuit Judge Angela T. Quigless of a class-action settlement against the mutual fund formerly known as A.G. Edwards (now Wells Fargo) for making hidden - but not illegal - payments to investment advisers Edward D. Jones and Co. Lawyers led by the infamous Milberg plaintiffs firm - four of whose leading former partners were convicted several years ago for running an illegal kickback scheme - made off with $21 million in cash. The 294,000 investors in whose name the suit was filed split $6 million, just more than $20 per person, plus three coupons worth $8.22 each for paying the mutual fund’s annual “management fees.” Ted Frank of the Center for Class Action Fairness says the coupons are nearly worthless because so few of the intended beneficiaries will find it worthwhile to fill in all the necessary paperwork. According to Daniel Fisher of Forbes magazine, the judge’s ruling contains “not a trace of the inquiry a judge is supposed to perform into the fairness of the settlement.”

Judge Quigless’ behavior earned St. Louis a “dishonorable mention” in the Hellhole report. The No. 1 Judicial Hellhole was Philadelphia, where an outfit called the Complex Litigation Center was made part of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. The court was experiencing budgetary woes until Court of Common Pleas President Judge Pamela Pryor Dembe apparently figured making it more plaintiff-friendly would attract new work and generate more filing fees. In her words, this was good because it meant “we’re taking away business from other courts.” Result: The number of damage awards in excess of $1 million tripled in the first half of 2010. This isn’t equal justice; it’s prostituting the court to the trial bar.

The Hellhole report is full of tales of justice perverted by lawyerly rapaciousness. “Behind every Judicial Hellhole judge is a supporting cast of personal injury and mass tort lawyers who are constantly pushing courts to expand liability,” ATRA explains. “Not coincidentally, the local or state economies in many of these Hellhole jurisdictions have suffered more than most during the latest recession.” When truly aggrieved plaintiffs clip coupons while their lawyers get mansions, there should be hell to pay.