Justice Department approves six-year terms and additional judgeships

July 22, 2002

The U.S. Department of Justice on Monday approved a proposed constitutional amendment that would increase Mississippi trial judges' terms from four years to six years. The Justice Department also approved one new county court judgeship each for Madison and Rankin counties.

Voters in the Nov. 5 general election will be asked to decide whether to approve the six-year terms for chancery, circuit and county court judges.

Mississippi trial and appellate judges support the longer terms.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Edwin L. Pittman said, "I'm very much for the six-year terms. They reduce the number of elections required by judicial candidates by a third and consequently, they reduce the money that a judicial candidate has to raise."

Justice Pittman said the longer terms allow judges to concentrate on court business rather than elections. Justice Pittman noted that many other states have longer terms for trial judges.

Circuit Judge Robert G. Evans of Raleigh, chairman of the Conference of Circuit Judges, said, "Our Constitution contemplates judicial independence and everyone wants it. Six-year terms increase that independence while preserving our right as citizens to select the individual who will preside over our disputes."

Rankin County Chancery Judge John S. Grant III, chairman of the Conference of Chancery Judges, said, "It benefits the public by not having as many elections and turnover at such a rapid rate. It maintains better qualified judges over a longer period of time. I think longer terms are in effect in a lot of other states."

Hinds County Chancery Judge Denise Owens, immediate past chair of the Conference of Chancery Judges, said that the longer terms would attract high quality candidates. "It would be more appealing for candidates to give up their law practices to run for six instead of four years," Judge Owens said. "It seems that four years is pretty short, compared to other states."

Lauderdale County Judge Frank M. Coleman, chairman of the Conference of County Court Judges, said campaigning is a distraction from the work of the judiciary. During the latter year and a half of a term, "you are concentrating on your job plus what the opposition is going to look like and on gathering finances, because you can't wait until the last minute."

Senate Bill 2606 and Senate Concurrent Resolution 543, passed by the 2002 Legislature, call for six-year terms, starting with the terms which begin in January 2003. Changing the terms would require a constitutional amendment approved by voters.

The 2002 Legislature also passed House Bill 605, which gave Madison and Rankin counties one additional county judge for each county. Each now has one judge to handle a heavy docket of County Court and Youth Court matters.

The new Madison and Rankin County Court judges will be elected on the November ballot, with the qualifying deadline 45 days prior to the election, according to the statute. The terms will begin in January 2003, the same as other elected trial court judges' terms.