Judicial Study Commission discusses campaign finance and other reforms

September 14, 2001

Members of the Study Commission on the Mississippi Judicial System on Friday discussed potential campaign reforms, including a suggestion to require judges to step aside from hearing cases involving large contributors.

Biloxi attorney Donald C. Dornan Jr., leader of a subcommittee studying judicial selection, said, "We've focused on a proposed rule requiring recusal of judges involving cases assigned to them in which major donors are parties or attorneys appearing before them in litigation."

The study subcommittee has not agreed on the threshold level of contributions to require recusal, Dornan said during the meeting in Jackson.

Committee member Circuit Judge Keith Starrett of McComb said campaign donors have made contributions in other people's names to avoid spending limits set by Mississippi law.

"A real problem is people making contributions in other people's names. If you don't address this problem, you can do recusal limits all you want and it will never be meaningful," Starrett said.

Another suggestion is to allow the governor to appoint someone to fill an unexpired judicial term without a special election. Under current law, an appointment is made, then a special election may be required, depending upon the time left on the term when the vacancy occurs.

Dornan said there has also been some discussion of asking the Supreme Court to loosen restrictions on judicial candidates' public comments. The Code of Judicial Conduct imposes restrictions on what the candidates can say.

"One of the reasons we have had distasteful advertising in judicial campaigns is because the public doesn't know enough about the candidates. Into the vacuum comes what you saw last election cycle," Dornan said.

Court of Appeals Chief Judge Roger H. McMillin Jr. heads a subcommittee that is studying the time period during which candidates may accept contributions.

Canon 7 of the Code of Judicial Conduct limits when candidates' campaign committees can solicit contributions, but places no time limits on accepting contributions. A portion of the canon says, "A candidate's committees may solicit funds for his/her campaign no earlier than 60 days before qualifying deadline and not later than 90 days after last election in which he participates during the election year."

Dornan said the group is discussing campaign reforms rather than an appointive judiciary.

"We have kind of concluded, as has probably everybody in this room, that we are not going to change our method of selection of judges. It's always going to be an election. We are focusing on the money," Dornan said.

The study commission on Oct. 24 will invite public comment on campaign finance during a work session in Jackson. The meeting is scheduled for 1 p.m. at the Old Supreme Court Chambers at the New Capitol.

Dornan said the meeting is not a public hearing, but rather a work session that will also include public comment. The commission is sending invitations to previous judicial candidates and various interest groups. It is open to anyone who wishes to make a brief statement that relates to judicial campaigning.

Anyone wishing to speak before the commission at the work session should contact Glenn Swartzfager at 601-359-2375, or by e-mail at gswartzfager@hotmail.com.

The 24-member Study Commission on the Mississippi Judicial System was created by the 2001 Legislature. In addition to judicial selection, the group is looking at other law changes, court terms and case management, judicial salaries and reforms for the Justice Courts.

The full commission will meet twice more before finalizing recommendations to be submitted to the Legislature. Meetings are set for Oct. 12 and Nov. 9. Both meetings will be at 10 a.m. at the Court of Appeals in Jackson.

Jackson attorney Carlton Reeves, whose subcommittee is studying potential improvements for case management, said he is in the midst of surveying trial judges about problems that bog down the judicial system. Reeves said delays in testing evidence for criminal cases at the State Crime Lab produce delays in resolving cases. He said some counties' reliance on part-time public defenders creates delays. Some trial judges have complained about resources for their courts.

There is variation among the judicial districts in how judges manage their dockets. "There is no uniform system of tracking the cases," Reeves said.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Edwin Pittman, a member of the study committee, said proposed time standards for the trial courts are intended to speed up the handling of cases.

Rep. Percy Watson of Hattiesburg, who heads a subcommittee studying judicial salaries, said Mississippi Supreme Court justices rank 41st in the nation, Court of Appeals judges rank 37th, and trial judges rank 39th.

The Chief Justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court's salary is $104,900, compared to a nationwide range of $90,842 to $170,312, Watson said. The Chief Justice of the Court of Appeals in Mississippi earns $98,300 a year, compared to a national range of $85,000 to $152,000. Trial court judges in Mississippi earn $94,700. The range nationwide is $81,000 to $137,000, Watson said.

Reeves said some large law firms in Jackson pay their first year lawyers $70,000. He said some judges have been practicing law longer than some of those first year lawyers have been alive.

Supreme Court and Court of Appeals judges in Mississippi also receive a per diem allowance to cover expenses. Pittman suggested extending the per diem allowance to trial judges.

Watson said, "It's easier to pass a per diem than a salary increase. It takes a long time for people to understand that it's not just something to benefit individuals. We are talking about maintaining a high quality of our judiciary."

Increased salaries and education requirements for Justice Court judges are also topics of study for the group. The Conference of Justice Court Judges recently increased its voluntary continuing education program hours. The study commission is considering whether to require more education.

Justice Court Judge Bruce Strong of Biloxi, a commission member, said, "The judges are really hungry for education."

Justice Court judges' annual salaries are tied to population, ranging from $12,000 in counties with populations of 8,000 or less, to $46,299 in counties with populations of more than 200,000.

"You tell me what kind of person you are going to get to be a judge for $12,000 a year," Strong said.

Pittman also called for salary increases for district attorneys. Pittman said the current salary doesn't provide incentive to keep talented prosecutors. District attorneys earn $79,830 a year.

For more information, contact court Public Information Officer Beverly Pettigrew Kraft at 601-354-7452 or at bkraft@courts.ms.gov.

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