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

Chief Justice Smith challenges bar to help improve judicial system

July 13, 2004

Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice James W. Smith Jr. has challenged Mississippi lawyers to help him make changes to solve the problems of the state's judicial system.

"I cannot do this alone. Such lofty goals require you all to help me," Chief Justice Smith said in his State of the Judiciary speech July 9 at the Mississippi Bar Convention in Destin, Fla. "Together we must arise to the challenge, keep everything that works and change what does not work"

Chief Justice Smith said, "I am entrusted by the people to protect, preserve and improve the legal system. The buck stops with me. Thus I must set the example, followed by the rest of the court. First, we clean up our own backyard, then we set out to help the bench and bar improve the legal system. I desire respect and confidence from lawyers, fellow judges and the public at large. I must earn that respect not solely by what I say, but rather what I do."

Chief Justice Smith reviewed priorities as well as goals already met. Restoring integrity to the judiciary is his first priority. He said the court must function with intellectual honesty.

He wants shorter opinions, and some decisions issued without a written opinion.

The Supreme Court has already met Chief Justice Smith's goal to enforce rules for timely decisions and clear the case backlog. On April 1 when he became Chief Justice, 41 cases were outside the 270-day deadline for a ruling. One tardy case on the merits remained on July 1.

He is pushing to reduce the backlog of petitions for certiorari. Certiorari is the discretionary review of Court of Appeals decisions. The backlog of certiorari cases went from 85 on June 20 to eight on July 10.

He will turn his attention to the Supreme Court's motion docket, which averages about 5,800 filings a year. He is considering changes in the operation of the Central Legal Department, where staff attorneys research issues raised in motions.

He said a recent bar survey showed that lawyers' leading concerns are a need for standardized civil case management rules and effective docket management. Docket management will be addressed during the October Trial and Appellate Judges Conference.

Review of court rules is a work in progress. "I will continue rule changes necessary to improve the bar and the judiciary," Chief Justice Smith said.

Civility and communications with the Court of Appeals, trial judges and the bar are important, Chief Justice Smith said. He has established a Bench-Bar Liaison Committee to suggest ways to improve the judicial system.

Chief Justice Smith reiterated his position in favor of an appointive appellate judiciary. "I will actively pursue appointive appellate judges and attempt to remove money from judicial campaigns. I am convinced that in general, better qualified, more experienced lawyers are selected by appointment," he said. "True or not, most people believe that too much money corrupts, whether it's money from outside the state, i.e. the Chamber of Commerce, or in state funds in large amounts contributed by a few lawyers."

"Please accept my challenge. Our entire profession needs a shot in the arm at this time. There is a definite need to restore and bring about a renewal of structure, order, predictability of adhering to precedent law and restoration of integrity to the court," Chief Justice Smith said.