Study Commission discusses improvements for judiciary

July 19, 2001

The Study Commission on the Mississippi Judicial System, created by the 2001 Legislature to recommend improvements for the court system, met for the first time Thursday in Jackson.

The commission identified areas of study as:

Supreme Court Chief Justice Edwin L. Pittman, who requested that the Legislature create the commission, said Thursday, "The whole purpose of our coming together is to make sure we have a judiciary that is free, independent, fair and equitable."

Former Sen. Carroll H. Ingram of Hattiesburg was elected chairman of the 24-member commission and Court of Appeals Judge Leslie King of Greenville was elected vice-chairman.

Ingram said, "I am willing to serve as the chairman and to do my best to help this group of people to come together to be successful to do what some of us and what most Mississippians think is an impossible task."

Ingram said, "I think we are going to see some genuine successful work. I think it's going to be hard work. At the end of the day we won't be 100 percent successful. You know you can't have the whole loaf. You stake out all that you can accomplish and you measure that."

The commission on Thursday discussed issues including campaign spending, elected vs. appointed judges, recusals, judicial salaries, time standards for trial judges, improvements for Justice Court, replacing the Chancery and Circuit courts with one trial court and replacing court terms with continuous terms.

Pittman said time standards are needed to expedite cases for litigants. "There are people more important than us judges. They are the litigants."

Pittman said high campaign spending and some of the advertising content in last year's elections for Supreme Court and Court of Appeals judges was cause for concern. "The reason for asking for this commission is the acknowledgment that we have changing times," Pittman said.

Pittman said, "Those elections were extremely tough. The advertising was somewhat rough. The advertising was not always accurate and a lot of money was spent."

Pittman said his own first election contest for the Supreme Court in 1988 cost about $33,000. Last year, Pittman said, one judge spent close to $900,000 on the campaign. "Those are shocking figures for a judicial election," Pittman said.

Circuit Judge Keith Starrett of McComb, a commission member and unsuccessful candidate for the Supreme Court, said, "We've got to find a way to get the big money out of the judicial races, especially the appellate court races....It cheapens the office of judge. It puts judicial offices up for sale."

Court of Appeals Chief Judge Roger H. McMillin Jr. of New Albany said, "Money is not the problem. Money is the symptom of the problem." McMillin said, "The problem in the selection of judges is the state has devolved into two competing camps, both of which perceive that they have a stake."

McMillin said, "I'm not sure that simply taking the money out of it or being able to trace where the money came from will answer the problem." McMillin said, "There ought to be more accountability on the candidates themselves on how the campaigns are run. What we've got to do is find some way to make the candidates themselves responsible for the tone of their campaigns."

Chancery Judge Edward E. Patten Jr. of Hazlehurst said the canons which govern incumbent judges' conduct should be strengthened to hold challengers to the same standards during election contests.

Patten and McMillin said there needs to be a quick response team to address potential violations of the canons during elections. Pittman noted that such a quick response team may be created in a revision of the Code of Judicial Conduct.

Pittman said he believes lengthening terms for trial judges and shortening the time for campaigning would help. He noted that some trial judges oppose the shorter campaigning time.

Attorney Carlton Reeves of Jackson said, "If judges can't qualify early, they won't know who is attempting to mount a challenge. They feel like their backs are against the wall."

Commission member and former Mississippi Bar President James O. Dukes of Gulfport said the system works reasonably well for trial court elections because judges are known to local voters. Problems arise in the larger election districts for Supreme Court and Court of Appeals races. The Code of Judicial Conduct limits what candidates may say to inform voters.

Dukes said, "On the one hand we are asking the voter to choose a candidate, but we are telling the candidates that they cannot give all the information."

Discussion has been underway for years about whether some judicial posts should be appointed rather than elected.

Pittman said, "I think our two million, eight hundred thousand citizens enjoy voting....I got to this court by election. I believe in elections, but I believe in as pure a judicial branch of government as we can create. Our people are entitled to it."

Roman"> Supreme Court Justice Michael P. Mills of Fulton, a supporter of an appointive appellate judiciary, said, "I don't think we will ever do away with elections in Mississippi. People love elections. It's like a sporting event. But in the last Supreme Court and Court of Appeals election, the winner was the first person on the ballot."

Court of Appeals Judge James Thomas of Biloxi said, "Whether we like it or not, in my lifetime we are not going to see judicial appointments for trial and appellate judges unless the Legislature changes dramatically."

Pittman and Thomas also noted that runoff elections present problems of low voter turnout. Commission members discussed ideas including moving the time for some elections or placing judicial elections on a separate ballot at the same time of party primaries. Judicial elections are non-partisan.

Reeves also said the commission should address partisan influences. Judicial elections are non-partisan. But, Reeves said, "It's not truly non-partisan when you get the endorsement of partisan officials."

The commission is expected to make recommendations to the Legislature before Dec. 1. The commission on Thursday agreed to meet the second Friday of each month in August, September, October and November at 10 a.m. in the Court of Appeals conference room.

For a complete list of commission members or other information, call Beverly Pettigrew Kraft, court public information officer, at 601-354-7452.