Pittman supports drug courts and changes in judicial selection

January 23, 2003

Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Edwin L. Pittman on Thursday praised proposed legislation to create a statewide drug court system.

Pittman, addressing about 400 people at the Election Commissioners of Mississippi state convention in Jackson, discussed his legislative priorities, which also include making Supreme Court seats appointive and replacing the so-called "herd" elections of some chancery and circuit judges with post elections. Pittman said the trial judges of the circuit and chancery courts should continue to be elected.

Pittman also expressed hopes that the Legislature will change the timing of judicial selection for two Supreme Court positions so that there will not continue to be a 14-month time lag between the times the judges are selected and the beginning of the terms of office.

Pittman said drug courts are effective government because they provide an incentive for people to stay clean by holding the threat of a prison sentence over their heads. Pittman said the statewide system he envisions would not require the addition of judges or court space. He said the cost could be limited to the range of $250,000 to $500,000 a year for drug court coordinators who would work for the Administrative Office of Courts.

Citing the state's first drug court in the 14th Circuit District of Lincoln, Pike and Walthall counties as a model, Pittman recounted some of its success stories: a grandmother who kicked her addiction to prescription drugs; a truck driver who grappled with alcohol addiction and was able to keep his job and support his family; a graduate student whose brief brush with jail convinced him that he couldn't do drugs because he couldn't handle jail.

Pittman said, "The fact is, it works. It's a good program and I hope the Legislature will adopt a drug court."

Discussing judicial selection, Pittman said he hopes that the Legislature will put before the voters a proposed constitutional amendment to replace elections of Supreme Court justices with an appointive system.

"If you don't want it, you can vote 'No,' " Pittman said.

Pittman proposes a judicial nominating commission which would submit five names to the governor, with the governor making the appointment. Pittman suggested a retention election by voters after a justice has served three years. Retained justices would serve five more years. Elected justices now serve eight-year terms.

Pittman said vast amounts of money that special interest groups have poured into judicial elections, without having to report the amount or the source, threaten the impartiality of judges.

Pittman said, "All I'm trying to do is keep out the multi-millions from this state."

Pittman said, "If you are going to have an election, you are going to pay the price of a loss of impartiality."

At the trial court level, Pittman said the at-large "herd" elections in multi-judge districts force incumbent judges to run against each other as well as challengers - a practice that promotes discord before the elections and afterwards. For instance, in a three-judge district with four or more candidates, the top three vote-getters win. Pittman called the practice "horrible," and said he favors replacing "herd" elections with designated posts.

Circuit Court herd districts include the 1st, 3rd, 5th, 10th, 14th, 15th, 16th and 20th districts and one subdistrict within the 17th District. Chancery Court herd districts include the 1st, 6th, 12th and 18th and one subdistrict of the 3rd District.

Pittman also favors a law change that would eliminate the 14-month delay between the election of and the start of the term of Supreme Court justices in District 1, Position 1 and District 2, Position 1.

Pittman said, "There is no other office in state government where somebody gets elected and they can't go to work."

Pittman said, "I hope the Legislature will help in changing some odd laws."

Pittman praised the election commissioners for their work. "You are part of effective government. For practically no pay, or low pay, you do the job," Pittman said.

With state and local races coming up, Pittman said, "Everyone is going to come out of the walls running for office, and ultimately it ends up on your desk. The future of our democracy, the future next January, is in your hands in November. I'm not going to worry about it."