Chief Justice Smith asks trial judges' help in addressing problems of judicial system

April 22, 2004

Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice James W. Smith on Thursday called upon trial judges to share their ideas for improving the judicial system.

Speaking to the Trial and Appellate Judges Conference in Biloxi, Chief Justice Smith said he intends to make changes.

"Innovative ideas and change are a must in the times we face in the judiciary," he said. "I know the state of the judiciary is on the line, and it's salvageable and we can do it working together."

Chief Justice Smith pledged to take into consideration the opinions of chancery, circuit and county court judges before seeking to implement changes that will affect their courts.

The Supreme Court has rule-making authority over the trial courts. The chief justice of the Supreme Court is the chief administrative officer of the state court system.

"You are not going to have anything crammed down your throat," Chief Justice Smith told judges. "We value your input. I've 'been there, done that,' and I know what it's like....You are on the front lines daily doing what is almost impossible."

Chief Justice Smith served for 10 years as a Rankin County Court judge before his election to the Supreme Court.

"We will focus on integrity. We will eliminate the past division that has separated the Supreme Court and the trial bench," Chief Justice Smith said.

Chief Justice Smith said he will focus on ways to improve docket management in the trial courts. He cited a recent state bar survey in which lawyers complained about civil cases lagging in the trial courts. He said he will not single out districts, but will attempt to offer training in docket management.

Chief Justice Smith said he will lead by example, seeking to rid the Supreme Court of its own backlog of cases awaiting decisions. He promised that the court will write shorter and fewer opinions. Some cases will be decided by order of the court without accompanying opinions written by individual justices.

Chief Justice Smith said the escalating campaign spending and the possibility of influencing judges are the biggest problem facing the judiciary.

"Unless some things change in this state very quickly, we need an appointive appellate system. The money has got to come out of the system," Chief Justice Smith said. "The problem is the money and the attempt to influence."

"This is absolutely the most critical thing that I see facing the judiciary today," Chief Justice Smith said.

He said 99 percent of judges wouldn't allow themselves to be influenced. But he said the perception of susceptibility to influence is there. "A large segment of our population believes justice in this state is for sale," Chief Justice Smith said.

"The saving of the judiciary of this state is a hill worth dying on, and I'm going to do everything in my power as chief justice to defend this judiciary and save it," Chief Justice Smith said.

Some of the judges attending the conference expressed varying opinions regarding judicial selection, with some favoring appointment, some favoring election, and some expressing interest in appointments followed by retention elections. But several expressed grave concern about campaign money and influence.

Circuit Judge Lee J. Howard of Starkville said, "Big money causes big problems....Where you get the large sums of money funneling into judicial races that we have seen, the potential for corruption or the perception of corruption is there."

Judge Howard said, "There is no way of selecting judges that completely eliminates the political process. Eliminating the large sums of money used in judicial campaigns -- we are going to have to find a way to remove that."

"I want to wait and see what the proposals are," Judge Howard said.

Circuit Judge Kenneth L. Thomas of Cleveland said, "I am impressed. I like his platform, the things he stands for and the things he will pursue. He wants to get the money out of the judicial campaigns."

Trial judges said they are encouraged by Chief Justice Smith's open-door policy regarding matters of judicial administration and his experience as a former trial judge.

Circuit Judge Samac Richardson of Brandon, the newly elected chairman of the Conference of Circuit Judges, said, "I think that this is the first step and a major step to form a good working relationship between the appellate courts and the trial courts."

Judge Richardson said the public benefits from the emphasis on timely decisions.

Circuit Judge Lillie Blackmon Sanders of Natchez said, "As long as you keep the door for communication open, I think it will make for a better judiciary." She said of Chief Justice Smith, "He understands where we are and what we do."

Chancery Judge Edwin H. Roberts Jr. of Oxford said, "He's willing to listen to what we have to say. He came up through the ranks. It's hard to understand what a trial judge is going through until you have walked in his shoes."

Judge Howard said, "You have got to have been there to really know what the problems facing the trial bench are and how to cure them."

Circuit Judge Kathy King Jackson of Pascagoula said, "We are all very optimistic that things are going to turn around. It's time that communications opened up between that court and the trial judges."

Lee County Judge Charlie Brett of Tupelo said he is encouraged by Chief Justice Smith's experience as a trial judge. "We are the ones in the trenches....It's hard for a Supreme Court justiceto understand about being a trial judge if they have never been a trial judge." Judge Brett said, "I think we have a new dawn of a new day."