Supreme Court appoints two special judges for Hinds County Circuit Court

May 24, 2006

The Mississippi Supreme Court on Wednesday, May 24, appointed two special judges to help expedite criminal cases in Hinds County Circuit Court and relieve the criminal case backlog.

The Supreme Court continued the appointment of retired Hinds County Circuit Judge L. Breland Hilburn and appointed retired Hinds County Circuit Judge William F. Coleman Jr. The appointments are effective July 10, 2006, through Dec. 31, 2006.

The appointment order signed by Supreme Court Chief Justice James W. Smith Jr. directs the special judges to be assigned to hear the oldest pending criminal cases, criminal cases in which indicted defendants are incarcerated because of failure to post bond, and cases involving drugs and/or weapons offenses. Senior Circuit Judge W. Swan Yerger will prepare a docket of those three categories of cases and assign them equally and randomly to the special judges.

The special judge appointments are done with the agreement of Hinds County Circuit Judges W. Swan Yerger, Winston Kidd and Bobby B. DeLaughter.

The district’s four regularly sitting circuit judges will continue to hear criminal and civil cases. The special appointments are intended to give those four judges more time to devote to their criminal and civil dockets.

Chief Justice Smith in discussing the appointments said the Supreme Court seeks to assist the Seventh Circuit Court of Hinds County in expediting the disposition of criminal cases and relieving the criminal case backlog.

“These are hard-working judges who I am confident will accept the assistance which is so needed. I have experienced total cooperation from the judges in our mutual attempts at solving this criminal docket problem in Hinds County. The end result will be a better system which I think the people of Hinds County will have confidence in,” Chief Justice Smith said.

Chief Justice Smith said there’s not a simple solution to the problems the Hinds County Circuit Court faces. The special judge appointments are expected to make a dent in the backlog. Other measures will be considered and input from the Hinds County Circuit Judges will be solicited.

Chief Justice Smith has met several times with the Hinds County Circuit judges and other officials to discuss the operation of the court system. He has visited the chambers of the Hinds County Circuit Court judges to seek their input in crafting solutions, and he expects to continue those discussions in efforts to assist the trial court. He met on Wednesday with Judges Yerger, Kidd and DeLaughter at the Hinds County Courthouse.

Judge Yerger said Wednesday, “As senior circuit judge of the Hinds County Circuit Court, I look forward to working with the special judges appointed by the Chief Justice and the Supreme Court. Retired Judges William F. Coleman and L. Breland Hilburn have many years of experience as Hinds County circuit judges. Their involvement in the trial and other disposition of criminal cases has the potential, together with the continued efforts of the current circuit judges, to make a difference in reducing the extensive number of criminal cases awaiting trial or other disposition.”

Judge Yerger said, “The special judges will need court reporters and bailiffs as well as administrative staff assistance. Additional assistant district attorneys and public defenders may be required. It will also be necessary to summon more prospective jurors in order to have a sufficient number of jurors for the additional trials anticipated.”

Judge Yerger said he will call a meeting next week of the current circuit judges and the two special judges to work on plans for implementation.

Chief Justice Smith said that Dunn Lampton, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi, has agreed to provide extra prosecutors from his office to help try cases if needed. Chief Justice Smith said he expects to ask the Hinds County Board of Supervisors to provide funding for assistance to the office of the Hinds County Public Defender, and to pay for extra court reporters when the trial load increases.

Chief Justice Smith said the Supreme Court will seek a federal grant to pay for the salaries of the special circuit judges. Gov. Haley Barbour has indicated that $160,000 has been set aside in grant funding for the Supreme Court.

Chief Justice Smith said that some of the grant funding will also be used to pay for the appointment of two special judges in Jackson County to hear cases involving Hurricane Katrina insurance disputes due to the recusal of that county’s judges.

If additional courtrooms are needed, Hinds County Chancellor Denise Owens will make her courtroom in the Hinds County Chancery Court Building available. The special judges may also use the courtroom at the Hinds County Detention Center in Raymond.

Judge DeLaughter said, “The assistance provided by the Chief Justice is certainly appreciated, and these short-term appointments will help. The crime problem in Hinds County has reached the point, however, that we must have long-term, permanent resources to adequately administer the criminal justice system.”

Judge Kidd said, “I appreciate the Supreme Court’s appointment of Senior Retired Circuit Judges Breland Hilburn and William Coleman. Judge Hilburn has been a tremendous help in reducing the number of criminal cases on my docket. I appreciate his service. I am also familiar with Judge Coleman’s previous service to Hinds County as a Circuit Judge. Therefore, I look forward to working with both Judge Hilburn and Judge Coleman in working to resolve a greater number of criminal cases on my docket. In my job as Circuit Judge, I have worked diligently, and will continue to do so, to resolve Civil and Criminal cases in Hinds County.”

Judge Hilburn has been hearing criminal cases by special appointment for almost two years. Judge Hilburn has presided over guilty plea hearings in Hinds County Circuit Court by special appointment by the Supreme Court since July 26, 2004. Under authority of the order issued Wednesday, Judge Hilburn will begin to preside over trials as well as take pleas. Judge Coleman is expected to preside over criminal trials.

Judge Coleman retired from the Hinds County Circuit Court on Dec. 31, 1996, after 20 years as a circuit court judge. Judge Hilburn retired May 31, 2002, after 30 years on the bench, 21 of that as circuit judge. Judge Hilburn succeeded Judge Coleman as the 7th Circuit’s senior circuit judge.

Judge Coleman and Judge Hilburn after retirement continued to hear cases by special appointment from the Supreme Court as senior status judges.

Text of the Supreme Court’s order click here.