Judges seek public’s help in keeping courts open

September 2, 2021

The Mississippi Judiciary is collaborating with the Mississippi State Department of Health in a public health and safety awareness campaign regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thirteen trial and appellate judges from across the state spoke in videotaped testimonials about their efforts to keep the courts open while protecting public health. Each said they received the vaccine.

The testimonials will air in each judge’s local area on television and radio. Production and air time were paid for by the Department of Health.

Judges who gave testimonials include Justice Dawn Beam of Sumrall, Justice Robert P. Chamberlin of Hernando, Court of Appeals Judge Anthony N. Lawrence III of Pascagoula, Court of Appeals Judge Deborah McDonald of Fayette, Chancellor Vincent Davis of Fayette, Chancellor Tiffany Grove of Raymond, Chancellor Joseph Kilgore of Philadelphia, Chancellor Jacqueline Mask of Tupelo, Chancellor Bennie L. Richard of Greenville, Circuit Judge Kelly Luther of Ripley, Circuit Judge Stanley Sorey of Raleigh, Chancellor Charles E. Smith of Meridian and Hinds County Court Judge Carlyn Hicks of Jackson.

Chief Justice Mike Randolph said that all courts have a constitutional and statutory responsibility to remain open. The Chief Justice reimplemented safety guidelines for all state courts on Aug. 5.

Chief Justice Randolph asked for cooperation from the public to keep courts open and protect court officials, staff and those who have business there.

“We need the public’s help so we can safely do our jobs. We need the public’s help to protect our court system,” Chief Justice Randolph said.

Chancellor Vincent Davis said people who come to court are not there by choice, but rather are compelled to be there. “They are not there because they want to be there. They are commanded to be there by the power of the state of Mississippi.”

Liz Sharlot, Director of Communications for the Mississippi State Department of Health, said, “We are incredibly grateful for the opportunity to work with such fine individuals who were willing to give their time to produce these radio and TV spots. When Chief Justice Randolph approached me with the idea, I welcomed the unique opportunity to further reach out to Mississippians. The end product is exactly what we envisioned and will hopefully encourage others to get vaccinated.”

Judges shared their experiences. Some were personal, and painful.

Circuit Judge Stanley Sorey said that COVID claimed the lives of his wife, his sister-in-law and a friend and fellow judge. “Last October, I lost my wife of 27 years to COVID. This was before the vaccine was available.”

Lynn Sorey went by ambulance to a hospital on Labor Day 2020. She died Oct. 8. Her sister, Lisa Headrick of Raleigh, died Sept. 12 of COVID. Circuit Judge Eddie H. Bowen of Raleigh died Feb. 7 of complications from COVID.

Court of Appeals Judge Deborah McDonald said, “I am a COVID survivor. I had COVID last year in June, and I quarantined in my house alone for 17 days. Thank God I didn’t have to be hospitalized.”

Everyone knew someone who died of COVID.

Circuit Judge Kelly Luther of Ripley said, “I have lost a number of close friends due to COVID.”

Hinds County Judge Carlyn Hicks recalled the Aug. 4 death of Hinds County Sheriff Lee Vance. His death “was a monumental loss to Hinds County and the state of Mississippi,” she said. Sheriff Vance’s cause of death was cardiorespiratory failure as a result of COVID-19.

Court of Appeals Judge Anthony N. Lawrence III recalled the Aug. 12 death of George County Deputy Sheriff Bobby Daffin. Lawrence, a former district attorney, had worked with Daffin.

Judge Lawrence said of his family’s decision to receive the vaccine, “We decided to get the vaccine to protect ourselves, our friends and the community in which we live.”

Chancellor Vincent Davis recalled elected officials and classmates who died of COVID. “When I think about those kinds of things, it’s incumbent on all of us to do all we can for everybody else.”

The courts must remain open despite the pandemic.

Judge Sorey said, “It’s imperative that the courts remain open. For criminal cases, the right to a speedy trial is guaranteed. If the courts don’t remain open, that right is violated.”

Justice Robert P. Chamberlin said. “Now more than ever, it’s vital that we keep our courts open and accessible to the people of the state of Mississippi. Justice delayed is justice denied.”

Judge McDonald said, “It is very important that everyone gets his day in court. Our mission is to keep the courts open and to do it in a safe manner.”

Judge Luther said, “It’s important that we keep the wheels of justice moving, to protect the citizens and those charged with felony crimes.”

Chancellor Charles Smith said, “The economy has to stay open. The government has to stay open. If people can’t get into the courtroom to seek justice, there is no justice....The wheels of justice have to turn. We are just one of the spokes.”

Chancellor Tiffany Grove said Chancery Courts “touch some of the hardest times that a family will to through.” COVID has added to the issues heard in Chancery. At a recent guardianship clinic, there were “three families where the only parent those children had, died of COVID.” She said, “When people need access to the court system, we must be there to provide that access.”

Chancellor Bennie Richard recalled a case in which a mother and father last year had a dispute over visitation with their child. The next time the case came before the court, the mother had died of COVID.

Chancellor Joseph Kilgore said issues such as child custody require immediate attention. “Those things just won’t wait.”

Judge Davis said, “When there is a problem, people need to have the protection of the courts. If the court is not there, the rights are going to be settled somehow in the streets....This is a very stressful time for everyone. COVID is scary.”

Chancellor Jacqueline Mask said that technology has allowed Chancery Court proceedings to go forward. Chancery Courts deal with issues regarding the safety and well-being of children, sometimes in emergencies. Many Chancery proceedings have life-changing effects.

Youth Courts deal with abuse and neglect of children, and with youths who have committed delinquent acts. Judge Hicks said that Hinds County Youth Court utilizes technology to conduct virtual hearings to lessen the chance of exposure to the virus for those who are compelled to come to court.

Justice Dawn Beam said, “Our courts have been determined to stay open to serve people’s needs.”

Judge Kilgore said, “I’m fully confident in our ability to rise to the occasion. We all know people who have been affected by this terrible disease. It’s going to take all of us pulling together to get through this.”