Chief Justice Pittman calls for appointive appellate court

November 27, 2002

Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Edwin L. Pittman on Wednesday said he hopes the Legislature will allow voters to decide whether to switch to an appointed system for the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.

Pittman, previously a supporter of an elective system, said he has changed his mind because he believes that the enormous amounts of money spent in the 2000 and 2002 appellate court races threaten the impartiality of the judiciary.

Pittman noted that the candidates themselves raised more than $1.6 million in contributions in the just completed Supreme Court election in the Southern District. Pittman said there is no accounting of the large amounts of "soft money" spending by outside interests.

Pittman said, "I am concerned about the amount of money spent by candidates. That is complicated and multiplied by special interests."

"The impartiality of the judiciary is at issue," Pittman said. "What we don't want is a court that reflects a specific paid-for philosophy."

Pittman said, "We had untold amounts of money coming in from special interests outside the state. We don't know where that money came from. We don't know how it was spent."

Pittman said attempts by the state Supreme Court and the Legislature to limit campaign spending have been blocked by the federal courts. Pittman said he sees an appointive system as the only means to shield the judiciary from influence.

Pittman also said the increasing cost of running a campaign has put the office of an appellate judge beyond the reach of many. "How many of our young people who aspire to public office can raise $500,000 or $1 million or $1.5 million? If it costs $1 million or $500,000 to be elected to these judgeships, I promise you, the foundation for democracy is destroyed," he said.

Responding to a news reporter's question about the effects upon diversity on the court, Pittman said the three African American judges and the two women judges who have served on the Supreme Court were all appointed first to vacancies.

Any change would have to be approved by the voters in a constitutional amendment.

"I don't know if the people will adopt this or not, but I will encourage the Legislature to put it on the ballot to see if the people of this state want an appointed judiciary or an elected judiciary," Pittman said. "I really want to ask them, 'What do you think?'"

Pittman noted that Mississippi has had an appointive judiciary before. From 1817 until 1832, judges were appointed by the Legislature. Elections were the method of selection from 1832 to 1868. From 1868 through 1914, appellate judges were appointed by the governor with consent of the Senate. An elective system was adopted in a constitutional amendment in 1914.

Pittman favors an appointive system followed by a retention election vote by the people after an appellate judge has been in office for three years. If voters approved in a retention election, the judge would serve out the term. Pittman suggested that terms for appellate judges remain eight years in length. If voters rejected a judge, another would be appointed.

Pittman created the Impartial Justice Task Force to formulate and recommend to the Legislature a constitutional amendment. The 19-member Task Force will meet at 10 a.m. Friday, Dec. 6, at the Mississippi Bar Center at 643 North State Street.

Pittman said circuit and chancery judges should continue to be elected.