Supreme Court adopts rules for random assignment of civil cases

May 29, 2003

The Mississippi Supreme Court on Thursday ordered that all assignments of civil cases to trial judges be done in a random fashion.

In written comments on the rule changes, the Supreme Court said, "The purpose of this rule is to prevent 'judge shopping' within a district or court. Although voluntary dismissal is allowed under Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure 41 at any time prior to service by the adverse party of an answer or summary judgment, when a civil case is so dismissed and then refiled immediately thereafter with no substantial change in the parties or claims, such practice, as an example, may be taken as a wilful violation of this rule."

Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Edwin L. Pittman said, "The problem is a few members of the bar are trying to manipulate the system to get the judge that they want. The judges aren't the problem at all."

The new rules were added to the Uniform Rules of Circuit and County Court Practice and the Uniform Chancery Court Rules. The rules are effective immediately. However, different local court practices "adopted for the purpose of accommodating the needs of economy and efficiency" may continue for 45 days, according to the order adopting the rules and signed by Justice William L. Waller Jr. on behalf of the court. Waller is chairman of the Supreme Court Rules Committee. If trial court judges petition the Supreme Court for adoption of different local rules, the existing rules will remain in effect pending a decision of the Supreme Court.

Pittman called on trial judges to suggest changes. "We want to hear from the trial judges. Tell us where they think we can improve it," Pittman said.

The new rules state, in part, "In multi-judge districts and courts, all civil cases shall be assigned immediately on the filing of the complaint by such method which shall insure that the assignment shall be random, that no discernable pattern of assignment exists, and that no person shall know to whom the case will be assigned until it has been assigned. If an attorney or party shall attempt to manipulate or defeat the purpose of this rule, the case shall be reassigned to the judge who would have otherwise received the assignment. If the judge who would have received the case under an assignment in compliance with this rule cannot be determined, a new assignment in compliance with the rule shall be made, excluding the judge to whom it was incorrectly assigned. Sanctions, including costs and attorney's fees, may be imposed by that judge on reassignment. Such sanctions may also include suspension from practice in the court imposing them for not more than 30 days and referral to the Bar for further discipline."

Pittman said some multi-judge districts already use random assignment of cases and some use a rotation. "We've had abuses of both systems," Pittman said. "We've had apparent attempts to manipulate the random system."

Pittman noted that the Mississippi Legislature passed a law during the 2002 Special Session in an attempt to address problems with manipulation of case assignments.

Section 8 of House Bill 19, signed by the Governor on Dec. 3 and codified as Miss. Code Ann. Section 11-1-56, says, "Civil actions in circuit, chancery and county court shall not be assigned to a judge until at least one (1) defendant has filed a responsive pleading. However, any necessary preliminary matters may be decided by a judge on a separate rotating basis before assignment of the action to a particular judge."

Pittman said, "That was a sincere effort to deal with the problem, but it doesn't work."

Pittman said the reason the new statute would not be successful is that in some cases, a long period of time could elapse before an answer is filed, and that in domestic cases that may be settled, an answer might not ever be filed.

The Supreme Court in its comment on the rule said, "In 2002 the Legislature adopted Miss. Code Ann. Section 11-1-56, which required civil case assignments to be delayed until one defendant has filed responsive pleadings. By the adoption of this rule, the Supreme Court has superceded Section 11-1-56, exercising its inherent authority to adopt rules of practice, procedure and evidence to promote justice, uniformity, and the efficiency of the courts, as articulated in Newell v. State, 308 So. 2d 71 (Miss. 1975) and Hall v. State, 539 So. 2d 1338 (Miss. 1989)."

The rules adopted Thursday allow the continuation of some districts' practice of assigning one judge to hear preliminary procedural matters on a set motion day, including cases assigned to other judges.

A copy of the rule changes is available on the Supreme Court's web site, courts.ms.gov. Look under the 5-29-2003 Hand Down list or under Rules.

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