ST. LOUIS—A judge in Madison County, Ill., has ordered the release of an internal document detailing a corporate public relations campaign questioning the impartiality of the county’s court system.
Circuit Judge William Mudge has ordered crop protection company Syngenta and its public relations firm, Jayne Thompson & Associates of Chicago, to release a document detailing the litigation public relations plan, which he said seeks to portray Madison County as a “judicial hellhole” where plaintiffs can expect “jackpot justice” and corporations don’t get a fair hearing.
(Photo: courtesy of Syngenta Corp.)
The judge claimed that document “outlines a plan to tie the defense of this action into a negative public relations campaign that castigates the Madison County judicial system as a ‘judicial hellhole’ and a source of ‘jackpot justice,’ and, in part, to undertake efforts to enhance the public’s perception of Syngenta and the herbicide it manufactures at the expense of the Madison County judicial system.”
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and industry-funded groups such as the American Tort Reform Association have both been critical of the courts in Madison County, which they regard as being too sympathetic to plaintiffs.
Syngenta had resisted calls to produce its public relations plan, claiming that JTA was a “litigation consultant.” In his order, Mudge ruled that JTA was not a litigation consultant and ordered Syngenta to release the proposal in pre-trial discovery in the suit filed against Syngenta by law firm Korein Tillery on behalf of nearly 100 municipal water systems and water companies in Illinois. The plaintiffs allege in the suit that Atrazine, a popular weed killer for corn corps, contaminates drinking water supplies.
According to Mudge, the PR proposal “encourages Syngenta to ‘selectively contact … pro-business columnists … in consultation with the company’ who have coined those terms (judicial hellhole, jackpot justice) and make the case that it’s now ‘Syngenta’s turn in the Madison County Barrel’….
“The proposal actually outlines an aggressive public relations Strategy to build upon or create a hostile attitude toward the Madison County judicial system. While the proposal says ‘we are not suggesting that the company author any or all of these themes,’ several are, in fact, suggested in the document including, ‘Another Madison County class action case going amuck,’ and ‘Now Madison County is going after the family farmers,’ and so forth.
“Included is a recommendation to recruit ‘supporters, including … the Illinois Civil Justice League, Illinois Chamber of Commerce, the Heartland Institute, Illinois Policy Institute and the Madison-St. Clare [sic] Record’ in this effort. It has nothing to do with trial strategy or the preparation of this case for trial … but much to do with fostering a negative public perception of our judicial system.”