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Court of Appeals judges sit as special trial judges

January 7, 2005

Three Court of Appeals judges are doing trial judge duty in a move to save money on special appointments.

Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice James W. Smith Jr. appointed Court of Appeals Presiding Judge Billy G. Bridges, Presiding Judge Joe Lee and Judge Kenny Griffis Jr. to handle one Chancery Court case each. The cases are ones in which local chancellors recused themselves. The judges are expected to take additional cases in the future.

Judges Bridges, Griffis and Lee volunteered to take the extra duties. Judge Bridges has before him a Scott County case involving modification of child custody. Judge Lee has concluded matters in a Hinds County divorce case. Judge Griffis was assigned a domestic case from Panola County, but that case is expected to be settled by the parties.

Chief Justice Smith made the special appointments under a provision of law which has been in existence since 1993, but which has never before been used.

“We are at a point financially when we need to utilize it,” Chief Justice Smith said. “These are tough financial times. This saves us money in our budget.”

Judge Griffis said, “In this time of a budget crunch, I think that’s one of the roles we can fill to continue to serve the public.”

Recusals are a common occurrence in the trial courts. A judge who has a conflict in hearing a case may step down from that case in a move called recusal, and the case will be assigned to another judge. In cases in single-judge districts, and in cases in which all of the judges in the district recuse themselves, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court will appoint a special judge.

During the 2004 calendar year, the Supreme Court made 340 special judge appointments. Most were as a result of recusals.

During the 2004 calendar year, expenditures for the appointment of special judges totaled $180,987.66.

Mississippi Code Section 9-1-105 (6) says special appointments may be made from the ranks of sitting or retired chancery, circuit, county court or Court of Appeals judges or Supreme Court justices.

Since he became administrative head of the state court system in April 2004, Chief Justice Smith has made special appointments mostly from the ranks of sitting trial judges rather than retired judges to save the expense of judicial salaries. He has appointed judges in adjacent districts. Only a few very time-consuming cases have been assigned to retired judges. That saves judicial salary expenses because the sitting judges work without extra compensation. Their expenses are limited to travel.

Chief Justice Smith said the Court of Appeals judges will be assigned mostly to cases close to Jackson to avoid travel expenses.

“They are excellent talent. I have every confidence in the ability of these three judges. They have all assured me that they have the time to devote to this in addition to keeping up with their regular duties,” Chief Justice Smith said.

Judge Bridges said he can give litigants a quick setting for a hearing and move a case along toward resolution. “I’m glad Chief Justice Smith has instituted this program. It will get cases moving.”

Judge Griffis said, “The Court of Appeals is one of the great success stories in our ability to get cases out on time and stay on schedule.” The Court of Appeals has never taken longer to decide an appeal than the 270-day time frame called for by state law and court rules.

Judge Lee said he has wanted to do this for six years. “I’ve advocated it ever since I’ve been on the court. The statute provides for it. We are on our straight salaries. There will be no additional cost,” he said.

The Court of Appeals was created by legislation adopted in 1993. The court is celebrating its 10th year anniversary this month. It began hearing appeals in January 1995.

The Legislature when it created the Court of Appeals added language to Section 9-1-105 which allowed Court of Appeals judges to hear trial court cases by special appointment.

Judge Lee said the appointments present no problem of conflict on appeal. The cases, if appealed, can be heard by the Supreme Court rather than being assigned to the Court of Appeals. Or if the Court of Appeals reviews a case heard by one of its number sitting by special appointment at the trial court level, that judge would recuse himself from participation in the appeal.

“I look forward to it,” Judge Lee said. “I think it makes better judges of us because it keeps us in touch with the trial courts and what they deal with every day. It’s good to keep in touch with reality.”

Judge Griffis said, “It’s very important that we sit in the chairs of trial judges and make some of the decisions that are going to be reviewed by others. It allows us to walk a mile in their shoes and to see the litigants face to face. The appellate courts rarely see the litigants. They have to rely on the cold records. It brings us closer to people who are involved in the judicial system.”

Chancery Judge Sarah P. Springer of Meridian, chair of the Conference of Chancery Judges, said, “The Conference of Chancery Judges welcomes the participation of the Court of Appeals judges. Utilization of these talented and experienced jurists at the trial level not only will alleviate the pressures of additional cases added to a sitting judge's docket, but will also give the appellate judges a taste of what it is like ‘in the trenches,’ deepening their understanding and appreciation of what goes on at the trial level.”

Judge Springer said, “The trial bench is always ready to assist when a special judge is needed in another county due to recusals or other circumstances which necessitate such an appointment. However, it is very difficult to work cases from other counties into the already crowded dockets of the sitting trial judges, and it can cause delays in the management of cases in which there has been a recusal. This can be very frustrating for the people who find themselves in court and who desire a speedy disposition of their disputes. This move by the Chief Justice to include Court of Appeals judges in the pool for appointment as special judges is a brilliant utilization of the talent available to serve the citizens of Mississippi.”

Judge Griffis said, “It’s very logical for the Chief Justice to use Court of Appeals judges to fill some of these gaps. I would hope that it would become a fairly common part of what we do. I think we have a responsibility to participate and assist the trial bench because they have dockets that leave very little flexibility. We have the ability to build in our schedules some flexibility and fill some holes in the trial bench and help out where we are needed.”

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