Study Committee recommends revisions to Code of Judicial Conduct
A committee of judges and lawyers has recommended revisions to the Mississippi Code of Judicial Conduct.
The Mississippi Code of Judicial Conduct Study Committee filed proposed revisions on April 7. The draft proposal and the study committee’s summary of the principal substantive changes are posted on the State of Mississippi Judiciary web site at courts.ms.gov.
A public comment period will be open for 45 days. Members of the bench, bar and interested lay persons may submit comments in writing to the Clerk of the Supreme Court, P.O. Box 249, Jackson, Mississippi 39205. All comments should be submitted no later than May 27, 2010.
The Code of Judicial Conduct, which was first adopted in 1974, sets standards for ethical conduct of all members of the Mississippi judiciary.
The Mississippi Code of Judicial Conduct Study Committee was created by order of the Mississippi Supreme Court in June 2009. The committee conducted a comprehensive study of the code and recommended revisions in light of changes to the Model Code of Judicial Conduct adopted by the American Bar Association in 2007.
Jackson attorney Luther Munford, chair of the Code of Judicial Conduct Study Committee, said, “The ABA completely revised its model code in 2007. The Supreme Court wanted us to reconsider the Mississippi rules in light of the ABA changes. The same process is going on in dozens of states across the country....We wanted to make the rules clearer so that lawyers and judges would know what is allowed, and what is not.”
The Code of Judicial Conduct includes, among other things, rules which govern the conduct of judicial candidates during elections. Amendments to the code are not expected to go into effect this year and will have no effect on the 2010 judicial elections.
The Supreme Court in 2002 created the Special Committee on Judicial Election Campaign Intervention to investigate allegations of campaign misconduct. The study committee recommendations call for broadening the special committee’s membership and its function.
Munford said, “The proposal retains the special committee charged with speaking out on ethical issues during judicial campaigns, but expands its membership to include non-lawyers, gives it responsibility not just for campaigns but for ethical advice in general, and makes it clear that the committee has no disciplinary authority.”
The recommendations call for justice court judge elections to be subject to oversight by the special committee, Munford said. Justice court elections are not currently subject to review by the special committee.
With regard to campaign contributions, Munford said, “The proposal would get rid of a rule that now requires a judge to recuse himself in a case if a specific dollar amount has been given by a ‘major donor,’ and would substitute a more general requirement that a judge recuse himself where a party, a party's lawyer, or even an independent group has made contributions which are illegal or would ‘create an appearance of impropriety’.” Munford said that the proposed revision “adopts the approach taken by the U.S. Supreme Court in Caperton v. Massey” decided in June 2009.
Munford said that in an effort to increase transparency, “The proposal would require judges to report any gifts in excess of $500 within any calendar year.”
The study committee will revise its recommendations after taking into account the public comments. The Supreme Court Rules Committee on the Legal Profession will review the final proposal and public comments and will make recommendations to the entire court. The Mississippi Supreme Court has rule-making authority over all state courts.
Other members of the study committee are Court of Appeals Judge Virginia Carlton of Columbia, Chancery Judge Edward E. Patten Jr. of Hazlehurst, Circuit Judge Michael M. Taylor of Brookhaven, Washington County Court Judge Vernita King Johnson of Greenville, Warren County Justice Court Judge Edwin Woods Jr. of Vicksburg, Jackson attorney William M. Dalehite Jr. of the firm Steen Dalehite & Pace, Gulfport attorney David P. Pitre of the firm Silbert Garon & Pitre, and Jackson attorney John Walker of The Walker Group. Mississippi College School of Law Professor Donald E. Campbell serves as reporter to the committee.