A judge’s campaign contribution flap in the Madison County, Illinois, circuit court has led the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Legal Reform to urge major changes in how the court handles asbestos cases.

Lisa Rickard, president of the Chamber’s legal arm, on Wednesday issued a statement calling on the court “to fix the fundamental flaw of Madison County’s asbestos docket calendar system that in effect puts court time up for sale.”

The flap began when it was discovered that attorneys from three plaintiffs’ law firms donated $30,000 in early December to the campaign fund of Judge Barbara Crowder, who oversaw the docketing of asbestos cases. Just a few days before the contributions, the three firms had received a majority of highly sought-after asbestos trial dates.

On December 12, chief judge Ann Callis removed Crowder from overseeing the asbestos docket. The court presides over litigation involving one-sixth of America’s cases involving plaintiffs with mesothelioma, a lung disease blamed on asbestos contamination.

In Madison County, the asbestos docket judge awards trial slots to law firms in advance of actual cases. The law firms use the slots to attract mesothelioma plaintiffs from around the country. Critics say the unusual process confers a substantial economic benefit on trial lawyers receiving the most dates.

Callis declined to discuss Crowder’s reassignment, but made public her order announcing the switch, along with this statement: “A situation was brought to my attention, and following consultation with the circuit judges, we unanimously decided to change some civil assignments to maintain the public trust in a fair and unbiased judiciary,” according to the St. Louis Post Dispatch.

Crowder was then assigned other duties in the civil division, including chancery and eminent domain cases. She is seeking retention of her judgeship, as Madison County judges do every six years.

That means she needs 60 percent approval on a ballot question asking if she should be retained. The newspaper said the $30,000 was her fund’s first new money in more than four years.

Crowder issued this statement Wednesday: “Unfortunately, the timing of some campaign donations and the entry of a scheduling order have led some to speculate that there might be some relation between them.” She added, “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Crowder also said her husband, Lawrence Taliana, would resign as her campaign manager.

The Chamber’s Rickard, however, went on to say: “For at least a decade, the Madison County asbestos docket calendar has assigned case slots to plaintiffs’ lawyers without actual court cases, creating a type of asbestos lawsuit futures market of immense value to those plaintiffs’ firms who have been assigned court slots.

“It is this compromised system that is the root of the cash-for-trials scandal which caused judge Crowder’s reassignment. When judge Crowder inherited the Madison County asbestos docket last year, many were hopeful that she would clean up this warped system. That didn’t happen.”

So Rickard urged the court to make the changes now. The Chamber’s legal arm has criticized Madison County for years for being too plaintiff-friendly. The Chamber, which lists Madison County as one of the country’s “judicial hellholes” for corporate suits, also skewered the court’s asbestos practices in a white paper last year [PDF].

Over 2,000 asbestos cases are pending in the county court.

Meanwhile, news reports, including from the ABA Journal, said the donating lawyers came from the Madison County-area law firms Gori Julian & Associates; Goldenberg, Heller, Antognoli & Rowland; and the Simmons Law Firm.

Elizabeth Heller of the Goldenberg Heller firm, who made a $5,000 contribution, called Crowder “hard-working and unbiased” and said, “We’re very disappointed that she’s stepping down,” according to the St. Louis newspaper.

Michael Angelides, managing partner of the Simmons firm, told the newspaper his firm has a history of supporting Democrats, including Crowder. He called the asbestos docket “a fair and efficient forum for plaintiffs and defendants to have their cases heard.”