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Justice Dickinson bids farewell to Supreme Court, gets ready to lead Child Protection Services

September 15, 2017

Presiding Justice Jess Dickinson on Thursday reflected on almost 14 years of service on the Mississippi Supreme Court and prepared for the challenge of leading the Department of Child Protection Services.

The agency he will lead, starting Sept. 18, is tasked with investigating 30,000 reports of child abuse and neglect annually. “If that doesn’t grab your heart, I don’t know what will,” Dickinson said, his voice quavering as he explained his decision to accept the job of Commissioner of Child Protection Services rather than retire from the court in December as he had planned.

Looking out over a gathering of colleagues, family, friends and court staff in the En Banc Courtroom at the Supreme Court, he described a faith-based call to service. He cited Jesus’ admonition in Mark 9:37: “Whosoever shall receive one of such children in my name, receiveth me....”

“And so, as I leave this place that I’ve loved working for all these years and I leave all of you who I have worked with and who have been such a great contribution to my work on the court, and I take on the responsibility of the care and the protection of these children, I ask you very sincerely to pray for me that I will have wisdom and discernment and I will know what I am supposed to do. It is a very scary prospect to take on the responsibility for those children.”

Dickinson’s predecessor, Dr. David Chandler, left the Supreme Court in December 2015 to lead Child Protection Services. Chandler will retire Sept. 15. He was unable to attend Dickinson’s ceremony because his own retirement ceremony was the same afternoon. In a letter to Dickinson, he said, “I know of no one who is better suited to handle this job than you are.”

Presiding Justice Michael Randolph explained that Dickinson’s son, Gulfport attorney Michael Dickinson, helped set in motion a chain of events that prompted Jess Dickinson to leave the court to tackle child abuse and foster care.

Several years ago, Michael Memorial Baptist Church in Gulfport began Rescue 100, an effort to recruit, train and certify prospective foster parents. Michael Dickinson and his wife were among the couples wanting to be certified to become foster parents. But the process was slow and cumbersome. The Dickinsons, father and son, met with Chandler to discuss the problem. Justice Dawn Beam asked to help, and Chandler asked Justice Beam to take charge of moving the effort forward. Michael Memorial Baptist Church hosted a three-day mass training for foster parent certification in April 2016. It was the first of six Rescue 100 mass training events across the state.

Michael Memorial Baptist Church Pastor Rev. Tony Karnes, who started Rescue 100, gave the benediction at the ceremony for Justice Dickinson on Wednesday. “Thank you for being willing to take on this task to protect our children,” he said.

Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. said that Dickinson’s goal when he joined the court was to improve public trust and confidence in the judiciary, and he has done that. He authored 347 majority opinions. He worked to create plain language court rules. He pushed to increase funding for civil legal services. He founded the Access to Justice Commission, which works to improve civil access to the courts for the poor.
“His greatest legacy, I believe, is Access to Justice,” Chief Justice Waller said. “Our system of justice must be accessible to everyone, regardless of their economic status.”

Justice Jim Kitchens presented Dickinson with an engraved plaque from the court, in appreciation of his public service. Justice Kitchens said he tried to talk Dickinson out of leaving the court. “Suffice it to say that I’ve never known anyone who was possessed of higher integrity or grater intellectual honesty than Jess Dickinson,” he said.

With Dickinson’s departure, Justice Kitchens by seniority will become a Presiding Justice of the Supreme Court. And he inherited Dickinson’s old desk, one that he coveted for years. The antique oak desk is a piece of court history, one of two that may be original furniture purchased for the Supreme Court when the New Capitol opened in 1903. It’s a two-sided desk designed to be shared.

By court tradition, Dickinson signed his name and service dates inside a desk drawer, alongside names of previous occupants that included, among others, former Chief Justice Virgil Griffith, former Chief Justice Lenore Prather and the late Justice Michael Sullivan.

The webcast of the ceremony is at this link: https://livestream.com/supremecourtofms/Dickinson-Retirement/videos/162772264.

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