Pittman says proposed changes aimed at eliminating race and gender bias

November 16, 2001

Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Edwin L. Pittman on Friday told the Magnolia Bar Association that proposed revisions to the Code of Judicial Conduct include language aimed at eliminating race and gender bias.

"It is to try to make sure that this judicial system is fair to all people," Pittman said.

"If this code is adopted, if you feel that a judge or a staff member has somehow been guilty of prejudicial actions, you can file a complaint with the Commission on Judicial Performance and expect to have some review," Pittman said.

Proposed Canon 3 B (5) of the Code of Judicial Conduct addresses prohibitions against discrimination and sexual harassment in adjudicative responsibilities. It states: "A judge shall perform judicial duties without bias or prejudice. A judge shall not, in the performance of judicial duties, by words or conduct manifest bias or prejudice, including but not limited to bias or prejudice based upon race, sex, religion, national origin, disability, age, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status, and shall not permit staff, court officials and others subject to the judge's discretion and control to do so. A judge shall refrain from speech, gestures or other conduct that could reasonably be perceived as sexual harassment and shall require the same standard of conduct of others subject to the judge's discretion and control."

Proposed Canon 3 B (6) says a judge shall require lawyers before the court to adhere to the same standards.

Proposed Canon 2 C says, "A judge shall not hold membership in any organization that practices invidious discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion or national origin." The Court in its commentary on the provision said, "Membership of a judge in an organization that practices invidious discrimination gives rise to perceptions that the judge's impartiality is impaired."

Pittman said the Court's earlier move to place arguments of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals on the Internet was to make the courts more open and accessible.

"As I look around this room, some of you had to kick down doors to make the courtroom and the judicial system open for you and your clients," Pittman said.

"You in this room and some of your heritage had a great vision, and because they had that vision, they saw things as they were and had a vision of how things ought to be, and they changed what was and made it more like the vision they had," Pittman said.

Pittman said that he will ask the Legislature next year to allow judicial appointees to serve all of an unexpired term without having to run in a special election. Under existing law, the Governor appoints someone to fill a judicial vacancy. The law says that a special election shall then be conducted "at the next regular election for state officers or for representatives in Congress occurring more than nine months after the existence of the vacancy to be filled."

Supreme Court Justices George C. Carlson Jr. and James E. Graves Jr., recent appointees, and other appellate, circuit and county judge appointees are up for election next year. The change Pittman proposes would allow the appointees to serve out the remainder of the unexpired terms.

Pittman said he also will ask the Legislature again next year to lengthen terms of trial court judges to eight years. Pittman said the longer terms would increase the number of judicial appointments to fill vacancies because more judges would not complete the term. He has also said longer terms would take the pressure off judges from having to raise money for elections. A bill to lengthen judicial terms died in the Legislature earlier this year.

Magnolia Bar member Robert Gibbs, who was an assistant attorney general when Pittman was attorney general, said Pittman "has been progressive throughout his political career." Gibbs said Pittman's appointment of Mike Espy as an assistant attorney general was the first time a black attorney had served in that position in the attorney general's office. Gibbs was the second.

Pittman said he had hired Espy when Pittman was Secretary of State. He hired minorities when he served as State Treasurer.

"It was my privilege and honor and duty to bring minority employment to the Secretary of State's office. I've just been privileged to be in positions to make some changes," Pittman said.

For more information, contact Beverly Pettigrew Kraft, court public information officer, at 601-354-7452.

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