Nigerian officials study Mississippi court system

JACKSON -- Nigerian judges, legislators and other officials are in Jackson this week studying Mississippi government to get ideas to improve their own fledgling democracy.

Fourteen officials from Edo State met with Supreme Court Justice William L. Waller Jr. on Wednesday and visited the State Law Library and the office of the Supreme Court clerk. Waller gave an overview of the operation of Mississippiís court system.

The group, which arrived in Jackson March 22, has spent time at the Mississippi Legislature and met with other state officials as part of an overview of the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government.

Sen. Hillman Frazier of Jackson, who has worked with the group, said what the visitors learn from Mississippi government could help their new democratic government succeed. Nigeria changed from military rule to democratic government in 1999.

"You have the military sitting back waiting for this to fail," Frazier said.

"Their mission here is to learn how a democracy works," Frazier said.

Legislator Akhere Ugbesia said his group has also been to Washington to study the federal system of government and to Nebraska to study its unicameral legislature. They are gathering ideas.

"The good ones, we will be able to adopt. There has to be local adaptation. There are cultural differences," Ugbesia said.

"What struck me was the simplicity of the system," Ugbesia said.

Fatima Akinbami, Judge of the High Court of Edo State, said, "We have to be able to effect justice in the shortest period of time to preserve our new democratic system. Otherwise there is no democracy if we cannot preserve the fundamental human rights of our people."

The visitors during their meeting with Waller in the courtroom of the Gartin Justice Building asked questions about the structure of the court system as well as about citizens' access to the courts and the way judges are elected.

Akinbami said one of the problems in her countryís judicial system is timeliness.

"A criminal justice goes around to prisons to preview cases. Cases are not tried on time. In order to get justice on time, the justice reviews cases in the prisons," Akinbami said.

Waller said, "In our country, a criminal defendant has a right to a trial in 270 days."

Legislator Esohe Jacobs asked, "If the cost of filing a case is so high, would that not discourage a low income common man, a peasant, from filing a case?"

Waller said, "The courthouse is open to any citizen."

Waller explained that in criminal cases, a person who is indigent can have an attorney appointed at government expense. While there are provisions for waiving fees in some kinds of civil cases, litigants who wish to pursue damages such as in a contract dispute must pay the filing fees, Waller said.

Ugbesia said, "The impression is that justice can be bought in the United States. Take the case of O.J. Simpson. He had one of the best lawyers."

Waller said, "I canít say the system is perfect. Everyone has equal access. There are some people that do awfully well with unseasoned attorneys."

Ugbesia said, "Would you agree with the wealthier you are, the more likely you are to get justice?"

Waller said that in Hinds County, "some of the best lawyers are public defenders." That legal representation is free to the indigent. "Is that unequal justice?" Waller said, "The system overall works pretty well."

M.E. Egbadon, whose position is similar to that of a legislative house speaker, wanted to know what candidates say when seeking votes for election. "What do you tell the people when you are competing?"

Canons of judicial conduct limit what judicial candidates can say. Waller said, "You tell them that you are qualified, that you will work hard and be a good judge and be fair and impartial."

Several of the visiting officials questioned how candidates who have to raise money to run for office can be impartial. Legislator Samson Osagie said, "How independent is the judiciary?"

Waller explained that committees raise money for judicial candidates, and that a judge could decline to participate in a case if he believed there was a potential conflict.

Ugbesia asked if he preferred an appointive judiciary or an elected one.

Waller said, "There are abuses of political influence with appointments just as with elected judges."

Ugbesia after the discussion said, "I was intrigued that the judges are elected here. We donít do that. They are appointed."

The visit was arranged by the Mississippi Consortium for International Development, a project of Alcorn State University, Jackson State University and Tougaloo College, Frazier said.

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