Study Committee supports statewide public defender system

December 5, 2003

The Judicial Advisory Study Committee on Friday reaffirmed its support of a statewide public defender system.

The study group expressed support for legislation which would eliminate a 14-month time lag between the election and start of the term of two Supreme Court positions.

The group also called for state funding of the support staffs and office allowances of county court judges.

The 21-member Judicial Advisory Study Committee, which includes judges, lawyers, court staff, legislators and lay persons, was created by the Mississippi Legislature in 1993 to make recommendations to improve the administration of justice. Twelve members of the committee met Friday in Jackson.

The study committee revisited the subject of a statewide public defender system. The group in 1999 recommended adoption of a statewide public defender system.

Harrison County Court Judge Robin Alfred Midcalf of Gulfport, a member of the Judicial Advisory Study Committee, said a statewide public defender system is overdue. "We have a responsibility to do what is right. It is past time for this legislation to take place," said Judge Midcalf, who served as a public defender and as a county supervisor before she became a judge. "These capital murder cases can really bankrupt small counties."

Circuit Judge Lillie Blackmon Sanders of Natchez agreed. Wilkinson County is in her district. "Wilkinson County is very poor. We've got these criminal defendants and they don't have any money," Judge Sanders said. Wilkinson County pays for indigent defense, including some expenses generated as a result of appeals filed by inmates from other counties who are housed at a private prison in Wilkinson County, she said.

Judicial Advisory Study Committee Chairwoman Aleita Sullivan, a Mendenhall attorney, pointed to Simpson County's having to pay for the expensive defense of Eric Snow, who was sentenced to death for the 1997 slayings of two Jefferson Davis County sheriff's deputies. The deputies were transporting Snow to the Mississippi Department of Corrections after his sentencing for manslaughter and assault in Jefferson Davis County. Snow got one of the officers' guns and killed both as they drove through Simpson County. The capital murder charges were filed in Simpson County.

Circuit Judge Ann Lamar in a ruling in November in a lawsuit filed by Quitman County refused to declare unconstitutional a state law that requires local governments to pay for indigent defense. Attorneys for Quitman County filed a notice of appeal this week.

The Legislature has refused to fund previous proposals for a statewide public defender system that would have shifted the cost of indigent defense from county governments to the state.

Taxpayers foot the bill, whether the cost is a state expense or a local one, Judge Midcalf said. "Whether the public knows it, they are going to pay, whether they pay on the local level or the state level," Judge Midcalf said.

Former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice James L. Robertson of Jackson met with the Judicial Advisory Study Committee at members' invitation on Friday. Robertson served as chair of the Mississippi Public Defender Commission, which was established by the Legislature in 1998 to prepare an implementation plan for a statewide public defender system.

Robertson said that at the time the Public Defender Commission submitted its report, counties collectively were spending about $5.6 million a year for indigent defense, but expenditures varied radically from county to county. The commission at that time estimated it would cost $12 million to $14 million to fund a statewide public defender office, Robertson said.

Robertson said, "At the time we studied it, Mississippi was spending less per capita on indigent defense than any other state in the union."

The 2000 Legislature repealed the Statewide Public Defender Act of 1998 and established a Mississippi Public Defenders Task Force to examine the statewide public defender issue. The 2000 Legislature also created the Office of Capital Post-Conviction Counsel to handle death penalty cases on second and subsequent appeals, and the Office of Capital Defense Counsel to defend death penalty cases at trial.

Robertson said he thought initially that cost would be the main problem. But that wasn't all that got in the way, he said."Politics ultimately ditched it," Robertson said.

Judicial Advisory Study Committee member Norman Gillespie of Oxford, a retired chancery judge, said, "Some genius needs to come up with some creative way to fund it. Unless you find a way to fund it, you are not going to get anywhere."

In other matters before the Judicial Advisory Study Committee, Senate Draftsman Caryn Quilter met with the group to discuss options for addressing the 14-month time lag between election and the start of the term for District 1, Position 1 in the central Supreme Court district and in District 2, Position 1 in the southern Supreme Court district.

Only two of the nine positions on the court are affected. Justices elected to the other seven positions take office the following January after a November election. The timing is a product of legislation designed to stagger the 8-year terms of the Supreme Court justices.

The study committee recommended that the Legislature reconsider a proposal to move the election date for those two Supreme Court positions which now have the 14-month delay. Senate Bill 2865, which failed in the 2003 Legislative Session, would have moved the election date for those two positions to the November general election preceding the term expiration the following January.

Addressing funding for County Court judges, the study committee recommended that the Legislature approve office allowances and support staff allowances comparable to those for circuit and chancery judges. Circuit and chancery judges receive state funding of $40,000 to pay for staff salaries and $4,000 for office expenses. County Court judges' offices are funded by their boards of supervisors. Funding varies.

Judge Midcalf said her office allowance in Harrison County is $1,200 a year.

Judge Midcalf requested the state funding recommendation on behalf of the Conference of County Court Judges. Judge Midcalf said the increase of the jurisdictional limit for county courts earlier this year to $200,000 for civil suits has increased the work load of county courts. No statistics are available.