Gartin Building Courtroom with the Great Seal of the State of Mississippi

Appellate judges attend ethics seminar presented by Mississippi College School of Law

April 2, 2004

Money in judicial campaigns, conduct, conflicts of interest and collegiality were among topics of discussion Wednesday at an ethics seminar for Mississippi appellate court judges.

Chief Justice James W. Smith Jr., who on Thursday assumed the position of the chief administrative officer of the state court system, said, "People expect that we are set apart....We live in glass houses. They expect more of us than the ordinary citizen."

Money in judicial selection is the biggest problem confronting the judiciary, Chief Justice Smith said. Finding ways to reduce the money in judicial elections will be one of his priorities as chief justice. He is interested in reducing the maximum allowable contribution for judicial candidates and in public funding of judicial elections. He favors a $500 cap on contributions from political action committees, individuals and corporations. Changes may be addressed in the 2005 Legislative session.

Chief Justice Smith said, "The appearance is out there and the public thinks justice is for sale. The problem is the money in the judiciary. Ninety-nine percent of the lawyers I know don't want to be involved in judges' races....Take the money out."

Former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice and Mississippi Bar President Reuben V. Anderson said he favors an appointive system for appellate judges to reduce the influence of money. "Our election system is completely out of control," Anderson said to appellate judges attending the ethics seminar.

Chief Justice Smith also voiced strong support for the appointment of appellate judges.

The Mississippi College School of Law conducted a three and a half hour ethics seminar for appellate judges Wednesday afternoon. Participants included Chief Justice Smith, Presiding Justices William L. Waller Jr. and Kay Cobb, Justices Chuck Easley, George C. Carlson Jr., James E. Graves Jr. and Jess H. Dickinson, along with Court of Appeals Chief Judge Roger H. McMillin Jr., Presiding Judges Leslie D. King and Leslie H. Southwick and Judges L. Joseph Lee, Tyree Irving, William H. Myers, David A. Chandler and T. Kenneth Griffis.

The program, presented at the University Club, was organized by Presiding Justice Cobb and Dean James Rosenblatt of the Mississippi College School of Law.

Dean Rosenblatt said, "In addition to educating and training our students, I believe we serve an additional role to support the greater legal community, and it is for that reason that we have enhanced our continuing legal education program and sought ways that we can be involved with the bar....I see this as a very important role for the law school because it connects us with the legal community. We want to stay engaged and connected with the legal community and that includes the judiciary, the private bar and governmental attorneys."

Panelists included Judge E. Grady Jolly of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice and Mississippi Bar President Reuben V. Anderson, Mississippi College School of Law Assistant Dean for Adjunct Faculty and former Mississippi Bar President Richard Bennett, and Mississippi College Professor of Law Jeff Jackson. Dean Rosenblatt served as moderator.

Bennett said, "What does it take to be a good judge? Well, you have to search your own heart because that's where it all begins, in your own heart."

Bennett repeated scripture often quoted by judges, Micah 6:8: "And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God?"

Judges talked about fairness in interpretation of the law.

Judge Jolly said, "The people of this state expect and deserve...that the law be applied evenly to them....The law is not always fair, but it is designed to keep fairness overall. The important thing to me is follow the law. The law is the law and it should be evenly applied to everyone."

The panel and judges discussed ways to promote collegiality in the deliberative process while preserving judges' independence.

Presiding Justice Waller defined collegiality as "the respect you give to your fellow justice to voice his opinion and say what he wants to say."

Justice Dickinson, the newest member of the Supreme Court, said he was surprised and pleased at his colleagues' willingness to let him speak passionately about positions he takes, whether they agree with him or not. "I have a freedom that I can say whatever I want to say and argue what I want to argue, then the people who are not going to agree with me are not going to take it personally," Justice Dickinson said.

Chief Justice Smith said the judge who is persuasive is not the one who is most forceful, but the one who is thoroughly familiar with the record of a case and can back up argument with facts.

"You do it nicely and congenially," Chief Justice Smith said. "That's the way the better appellate judges are able to persuade, through evenhandedness, knowing what they are talking about and backing it up."

Chief Justice Smith said of his colleagues, "This group has great respect for each other personally and for the institution.... Our court is now a very collegial court."

Judge Myers said, "It does not make sense to me to offend another judge."

Judges discussed the process of developing research and their collective opinions into case decisions. They discussed balancing the need for timely decisions against the demand for thorough attention to each case.

Justice Graves said individual justices must not only manage their time in writing decisions, but must coordinate their work with other justices.

Jackson said some of the written opinions handed down by the state appellate judges are too long. Jackson said issues raised in opinions could be addressed in a shorter fashion.

Chief Justice Smith said, "We do write too much....You will see great changes in this area. It goes a long way to speeding up decisions." He said, "I am a stickler for deadlines."

Chief Justice Smith said a recent study by a bench-bar committee identified case management and docket management as one of the biggest problems in the judiciary. He said that case management training for judges will be sought.