Chief Justice honors four for work to improve the judicial system

July 14, 2001

Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Edwin L. Pittman named as recipients of this year's Chief Justice Award four people whose commitment to improving the judicial system was exhibited by their tireless work to create the Court of Appeals and the Administrative Office of Courts in 1993.

The Chief Justice Award is given this year to former Supreme Court Chief Justice Armis E. Hawkins of Houston, former Mississippi Bar president Grady Tollison of Oxford, Justice Michael P. Mills of Fulton and the late Sen. Hainon A. Miller of Greenville.

The awards are to be presented at the Mississippi Bar's annual convention Saturday, July 14, in Destin, Fla.

Pittman in announcing the award recipients said, "I appreciate their efforts. None of this would have come about had they not worked cooperatively as a team, and I appreciate that. It made a big step forward in the management of the judiciary."

Justice Hawkins urged creation of the Court of Appeals to relieve a backlog of cases that crowded the docket of the Supreme Court and delayed the issuing of decisions. At the time legislation was introduced in 1993 to create the intermediate appellate court, decisions from the Supreme Court were taking an average of two years and justices were handling an average of 100 cases apiece. Hawkins in an address to both houses of the Legislature on March 24, 1993, implored lawmakers to create a new court, saying the work load invited errors and the time delays prolonged the wait for justice for litigants. He called the combination one "begging for catastrophe."

Hawkins said the distribution of part of the work load to the Court of Appeals has given Supreme Court justices more time to devote to cases.

Hawkins recalled in an interview July 3, "There were two opposing tensions: getting opinions out where people didn't have to wait, and getting it right. You couldn't do them both. I could turn out an opinion every day, but it just wouldn't give any thought to that case....It just takes a lot of time to give each case what it deserves."

Tollison as president of the Mississippi Bar lobbied the Legislature for court reform that included creation of the Court of Appeals and the Administrative Office of Courts, the hiring of law clerks and staff for trial judges and judicial salary increases. Tollison in pushing for creation of the AOC said it would promote accountability of the court system.

Justice Mills was a state representative and chairman of the House Judiciary A Committee in 1993. Senator Miller was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Their work in shepherding the legislation to passage was a significant advancement for the administration of justice. The creation of the Court of Appeals and the Administrative Office of Courts ranks among the most significant changes affecting the state judicial system in recent years.

Tollison in an interview July 3 said, "Mike Mills was the driving force over in the Legislature....When we got to the Senate, we needed a leader and Senator Miller took that role and ushered it through. There was such great respect for his years of service that people listened to him."

Pittman noted that Miller insisted on creation of the Administrative Office of Courts and made his support of other related legislation contingent upon inclusion of that feature.

Pittman said, "He was wise in doing this. The Administrative Office of Courts allows us to determine how we should best use our resources in the most efficient manner."

Pittman said Mills was instrumental in gathering broad legislative support. Pittman said Mills "had a unique understanding of the need for a Court of Appeals."

Mills, who had introduced similar legislation unsuccessfully a year earlier, said in an interview July 5, "It was one of those good things that you can look back upon and say, 'It was the right thing to do.'....It's gratifying to see that the efforts made in 1993 have brought a lot of good to the state. "

Mills said the ideas for the reforms came from the bar, most notably from the work of Tollison, Amy Whitten and Allan Alexander.

"We didn't sit around and dream up the AOC. We implemented their vision," Mills said.

The Administrative Office of Courts, created by Senate Bill 2620 and codified in 9-21-1, was approved April 15, 1993, and began operation July 1, 1993.

House Bill 548, which gained final approval on April 15, 1993, created the Court of Appeals with 10 judgeships. The legislation was codified as 9-4-1. The first elections were held in November 1994. Judges took office in January 1995.

Since the inception of the court, its five election districts have been the same as the five congressional districts. Population changes that will result in the loss of a congressional district prompted the 2001 Legislature to separate the Court of Appeals districts from the congressional districts. House Bill 697, approved by Gov. Ronnie Musgrove on April 7, 2001, established five distinct Court of Appeals districts.

From its beginning through June 30 this year, the Court of Appeals has decided 4,226 cases, including 4,075 cases on the merits. The Court of Appeals by statute is required to issue a decision within 270 days after the final briefs have been filed with the court. The Court has consistently met that mandate.

Tollison said the wait for appeals has been cut in half. "That has made an unbelievable difference for the trial judges and the trial bar to see these things move and the Supreme Court has seen a weight lifted off its back," Tollison said.

The Administrative Office of Courts' mission includes assisting the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court with duties as the chief administrative officer of all courts of the state, including insuring that the business of the courts of the state is attended with proper dispatch, that the dockets of such courts are not permitted to become congested and that trials and appeals are not delayed unreasonably. Other duties include working with the clerks of all youth courts and civil and criminal trial courts in the state to collect statistics concerning the administration of justice; to procure grants and coordinate studies and projects to improve the administration of justice; to provide support to the Judicial Advisory Study Committee; and to promulgate standards, rules and regulations for computer and/or electronic filing and storage of all court records and court-related records maintained by Circuit and Chancery Courts.

Justice Hawkins began the tradition of the Chief Justice Award in 1994 to recognize individuals who exemplify leadership in the legal profession. Martin Smith, the first director of the Administrative Office of Courts, was the first award recipient. Other recipients include attorney Victor McTeer, 1995; Chancellor Sebe Dale, 1996; Mississippi College School of Law Dean J. Richard Hurt, 1997; former Lt. Gov. Evelyn Gandy, 1998; Rep. Ed Perry, 1999; and Justice Michael D. Sullivan, 2000.

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