Gartin Building Courtroom with the Great Seal of the State of Mississippi

Judicial study commission makes recommendations

December 14, 2001

A judicial study commission on Friday adopted recommendations addressing elections, campaign finance, judicial salaries, case management and Justice Courts.

The Study Commission on the Mississippi Judicial System will submit a written report to the Legislature in January. Legislation is expected to be drafted to address the recommendations.

Election and campaign recommendations adopted by the commission during a meeting in Jackson include:

• Allowing judges who are appointed to unexpired terms to serve the entire term without having to run in a special election.

• Lengthening terms for Circuit, Chancery and County Court judges to eight years. Those judges now serve four-year terms.

• Broadening the definition of "independent expenditures" in judicial elections.

• Giving the Secretary of State authority to audit the books and records of a political committee, including subpoena power to obtain records, if violations of campaign contribution reporting requirements are suspected.

• Giving the Secretary of State authority to impose civil penalties of up to $10,000 per day for delinquent campaign finance reports. The penalty by law now is $50 a day.

• Allowing the Secretary of State or any aggrieved party to seek an injunction to prohibit a candidate or political committee which is delinquent in filing a campaign finance disclosure report from making any further campaign expenditures or prohibiting any other person or entity from disseminating information including publications and advertisements purchased with such campaign expenditures.

The campaign disclosure recommendations are intended to reduce the amount of unregulated and unreported "soft money" in judicial campaigns. Some members of the committee also said the large amounts of money raises and spent in judicial campaigns are a problem.

Committee member Supreme Court Justice Kay Cobb said, "I think the majority of the problem is caused by the amount of money." Cobb was a candidate last year.

Committee member Circuit Judge Keith Starrett of McComb said, "I think we all will admit that without the big money campaigns of the last election cycle, this committee would not exist." Starrett was an unsuccessful candidate for Supreme Court justice last year.

Attorney Donald C. Dornan Jr. of Biloxi, chair of the Methods and Selection Committee, discussing the recommendation for lengthening terms of trial judges to match those of appellate judges, said, "The longer the term, the fewer the elections. The fewer the elections, the less the influence of money and outside influence or the appearance of influence."

Dornan, describing the recommendations for more enforcement powers for the Secretary of State, said "Put some teeth in it."

The Methods and Selection Committee heard testimony from candidates and other interested persons during a work session on Oct. 24. Jackson attorney Danny E. Cupit, a member of the Methods and Selection Committee, said, "A number of the people that came before our committee said if you wold simply enforce the campaign finance laws, you would come close to curing some of the problems that are endemic in the system."

Cupit said, "We could not constitutionally limit those expenditures to campaigns. All we could do is require reporting" in an attempt to cure problems.

Dornan said, "We are trying to step through this mine field of constitutional protections that we may or may not agree with, but we have to live with. In terms of what can be given or what can be spent, I'm in agreement that that's a sticky wicket that we should stay out of."

The committee adopted recommendations for a $10,000 a year salary increase for district attorneys, Supreme Court Justices and judges of the Chancery and Circuit courts and a $14,000 a year raise for Court of Appeals judges.

The Conference of County Court Judges decided earlier not to ask for a raise, said Harrison County Judge Robin Alfred Midcalf, who is a member of the commission.

Starrett said the Conference of Circuit Court Judges did not want to ask for a specific dollar figure because of condition of the state budget.

Current salaries are:

  Chief Justice of the Supreme Court $104,900  
  Presiding Justice of the Supreme Court $102,900  
  Associate Justice of the Supreme Court $102,300  
  Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals $98,300  
  Associate Judges of the Court of Appeals $95,500  
  Chancery and Circuit Judges $94,700  
  District Attorneys $79,830  

Salaries Committee Chairman Rep. Percy Watson of Hattiesburg, who was unable to attend the meeting Friday, said in a report outlining the recommendations that Mississippi judges' salaries are below the Southeastern average and are not competitive with private law practice. Watson said salaries have been a factor in some judges returning to private practice.

Watson's report said a 1999 Mississippi Bar survey showed the average partner in a Mississippi law firm earned $125,087, and that associates with six to 10 years of practice averaged $81,650. In another comparison, the average salary for Mississippi community college presidents is $115,000 a year. Trial judges in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Tennessee and Texas earn an average of $112,185 a year - $17,485 more than Mississippi pays Circuit and Chancery Court judges.

The commission adopted recommendations for Justice Court judges including:

• Raising the educational requirements from a high school diploma or General Education Development (GED) degree to a four-year college degree from an accredited institution. A grandfather clause would cover those currently serving who don't have a college degree.

• Giving Justice Court judges a salary increase in line with the increased education requirements. Salaries under existing law are based on county population.

• Requiring Justice Court judges to run in non-partisan elections. All other judicial elections in Mississippi now are non-partisan.

• Aligning Justice Court elections with elections for Circuit and Chancery Courts.

• Extending the terms of Justice Court judges to six years.

Other recommendations for changes to improve judicial efficiency included:

• Implementing a uniform case tracking system for Circuit and Chancery clerks in order to ascertain the number of cases pending before each judge. The Administrative Office of Courts would handle the case tracking. How cases are counted now varies.

• Establishing pilot programs for case tracking. The program should take into account geographic diversity and not focus just on areas with the most case filings.

• Allowing all trial judges to hire a full-time law clerk. Trial judges now may choose between having a law clerk or a court administrator or a secretary.

• Directing attention to needs of the criminal justice system. State forensic facilities are understaffed and evidence is not analyzed in a timely manner, promoting delays.

• Establishing public defender offices funded and staffed in a manner comparable to district attorney offices.

Commission Chairman Carroll H. Ingram of Hattiesburg said, "I think we've had some good recommendations and I'm hopeful that the atmosphere in the Legislature this year will be a recognition that we need to improve the judicial system."

Ingram said that the Legislature may change some of the details, but the basic ideas are solid. "I think these recommendations are practical. They are achievable. I think that the public will want them to be put into place."

Supreme Court Chief Justice Edwin L. Pittman, who recommended that the Legislature create the study commission, thanked the members for their work.

Pittman said, "We are trying to say to the public that you can repose confidence in the judicial system."

For more information, contact Beverly Pettigrew Kraft, court public information officer, at 601-354-7452 at the Administrative Office of Courts.