Judicial study group discusses public defenders, sentencing disparities, judicial selection

September 5, 2003

The Mississippi Legislature should reconsider proposals for a statewide public defender system, Supreme Court Chief Justice Edwin L. Pittman told a judicial study group on Friday.

Pittman also asked the Judicial Advisory Study Committee for recommendations in addressing criminal sentencing disparities among court districts. He asked the group to consider a recommendation for appointing rather than electing appellate judges. And he asked the group to look at a way to remove the 14-month time-lag between the election of two Supreme Court positions and the time the justices take office.

The Legislature previously rejected proposals for a statewide public defender system.

Pittman asked the study committee to offer its recommendations on a statewide public defender system. Pittman said, "We have a great need. If you have a recommendation, the Supreme Court will be as supportive as it can be. We see daily the need for the public defender system to be improved."

Committee member Norman Gillespie of Oxford, a retired chancery judge, said proposals for a statewide public defender system have been discussed since about 1967, but the legislature has rejected the idea.

Committee member Alfred Rhodes, a McComb attorney, said the projected expense of a statewide public defender system was the reason the Legislature rejected past proposals.

Discussing sentencing disparities, Pittman said he sees a wide range of sentences in appeals reviewed by the court. Sentences for the same crime vary from harsh to lenient among the 22 circuit districts, and even among different defendants in the same district, Pittman said.

"I don't know how you deal with it, but we need your wisdom on disparities of sentences," Pittman said.

Committee member Les Lampton, a Jackson businessman, suggested that the Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court could even out sentencing disparities at appellate review.

But Pittman said the appellate courts cannot disturb a sentence which is within the bounds of what is allowed by law, even if the appellate judges disagree with it.

Court of Appeals Judge Tyree Irving of Greenwood, a study committee member, said he also sees great disparity in sentencing. Irving suggested that sentencing guidelines akin to those employed by the federal courts could alleviate the problem, but he said such a proposal would likely meet with strong opposition.

Irving, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney, said, "I happen to be a proponent of the guidelines." But he said some state judges are likely to oppose guidelines. He said that such a proposal for state courts "may die the same sort of death the public defender system has died."

The study committee is expected to review and discuss sentencing disparities and the public defender system more.

Pittman asked the committee to look at judicial selection and recommend changes. "We desperately need your attention on judicial selection," Pittman said.

Pittman favors an appointive system for Supreme Court and Court of Appeals judges while keeping the elective system for circuit and chancery judges. Pittman said the elective process has produced multi-million-dollar spending on judicial campaigns. He said that an appointive system would deter the danger of influence that goes with campaign contributions.

Gillespie said, "Once you become a judge and if you take an oath of being impartial, and you sit there and think you have to run every four years, that might have an effect on being impartial."

Irving said he vigorously opposes an appointive system. Irving said appointing judges won't solve the problem.

"It's all about the integrity and the character of the judge," Irving said. "I have never rendered a decision out of concern whether I'm going to get re-elected."

Bills proposing to appoint appellate judges died in the 2003 Legislature.

Bills which would have shortened the time between election and the beginning of terms for two Supreme Court seats were also rejected by the 2003 Legislature. Pittman said he will push to have the legislation introduced again in 2004.

By statute, a 14-month delay exists in District 1, Position 1 in the central district and in District 2, Position 1 in the southern district. The other seven positions do not have the delay. Pittman wants every justice who wins a November election to take office the following January.

In other matters considered by the study committee, the group on Friday recommended that the Legislature add another judgeship to the 13th Chancery District. The 13th Chancery District includes Covington, Jefferson Davis, Lawrence, Simpson and Smith counties.

Chancery Judge Larry Buffington is the only judge in a district that averages 3,247 cases filed per year, the heaviest case load of any in the state, said Mendenhall attorney Aleita Sullivan. Sullivan assumed the duties of chairwoman of the Judicial Advisory Study Committee on Friday.

The committee studied case loads last year and recommended that the Legislature add judgeships to the 13th Chancery and three other chancery districts as well as six circuit court districts. No circuit or chancery judgeships were added by the 2003 Legislature.

Chancery Judge Sebe Dale of Columbia, a committee member, said national studies recommend no more than 1,000 cases per judge per year. "When you get above that you are overloading a judge," Dale said. "We've got judges all over the state that are above that."

Other discussion by the committee included a an ongoing study of systematic revision of the criminal code, safeguards for the handling of money belonging to wards of the chancery court and staffing assistance for county judges.

Tupelo attorney L.F. Sams, outgoing committee chairman, said staffing assistance is needed for efforts to compile recommendations for revisions to the state criminal code. Committee members Judy Johnson and Matt Steffey, law professors at the Mississippi College School of Law, have worked on recommendations for criminal code revisions for several years, and expect the effort to take two more years. Pittman said he will ask the Legislature to fund a staff position to assist with the criminal code revision recommendations.

The 2003 Legislature increased the jurisdictional limits of county courts to include civil litigation claims up to $200,000. That is expected to increase the number of cases handled by the 19 county courts, said Kevin Lackey, director of the Administrative Office of Courts. The county court judges' offices are funded by the counties. The study committee is expected to review proposals for funding additional support staff for county courts at a later meeting.

Adams County Chancery Clerk Thomas O'Beirne of Natchez has been studying the way various chancery courts handle money entrusted to the courts by conservatorships and guardianships and money entrusted to the courts as they sort out disputes involving estates, heirships and other matters. Procedures vary among the courts.

Dale said there is no statutory authority directing the courts how to handle the money. His policy is to require money that will be held by the court for more than 30 days to be placed in an interest-bearing account. Dale said the people to whom the money will be dispersed deserve to have it drawing interest rather than sitting idle.

Dale said, "It ought to be handled with uniformity across the state and in a manner that provides protection to the people."

O'Beirne said he will discuss the matter further with chancery clerks and chancellors.