Tort reform, campaign finance reform, judicial salary increases and other issues are front-burner items for Mississippi lawyers for the 2002 legislative session.
While lawyers collectively agree on most issues, tort reform isn’t one of them. W. C. “Cham” Trotter III, president of The Mississippi Bar, sidestepped the issue of whether tort reform is needed by saying its members wanted to “protect everybody’s rights, both plaintiffs and defendants.”
“The system welcomes any changes that would improve the justice system,” he said.
Well-known litigator Alex Alston of Jackson-based Brunini, Grantham, Grower & Hewes, PLLC, said the current system “works pretty good.”
“That ole jury system gets slow and cumbersome, but by God, it metes out justice most of the time,” he said. “It’s the best system in the whole world.”
Lance Stevens, immediate past president of the Mississippi Trial Lawyers Association (MTLA), said he didn’t think that large jury verdicts were “a Mississippi problem.”
“I disagree that it’s venue specific,” he said. “In a recent Fen-Phen case in Oregon, for example, 10 white jurors gave the claimant $10 million. That’s no different than the 11 or 12 minorities that decided the case in Jefferson County.”
Stevens pointed out that mega plaintiffs’ firms doing national or regional work are becoming players in a number of states.
“Every time one of them comes into my state, I hate it,” he said. “No one wants additional competition. But I completely disagree with the proposition that this is a Mississippi problem because we are necessarily any more favorable to plaintiffs than any other state.”
Last month, Mississippians For Economic Progress (MFEP), a newly formed association comprised of more than 40 associations, unveiled its single agenda — tort reform.
“It’s an unprecedented movement,” said David Allen, vice president of MFEP and president of Mississippi Blood Services. “It’s gaining momentum every day. This is just a small swell in the water right now. It’s going to turn into a tidal wave as more people learn about it.”
Rep. Ed Blackmon Jr. (D-Canton), chairman of the Judiciary B committee and an attorney who serves on the Study Commission on the Mississippi Judicial System, said proponents for tort reform “have tried to influence my thought process (with) false and misleading statements.”
“I’ve looked at most of the issues put forth and I don’t see anything that needs to be done with it,” he said. “I’ve heard quotes about the amounts of verdicts and what it really means to our state and I look forward to debating that. I think our system is doing just fine as it is. We’re right in line with our sister states and the rest of the country on how we’re dealing with it.”
Study Commission recommendations
Last month, the 24-member Study Commission, created by the 2001 Legislature to examine the state’s judicial system, unveiled recommendations addressing a range of issues, including elections, campaign finance, judicial salaries, case management and Justice Courts.
Even though lawmakers expect to receive a more detailed report this month, these recommendations were available at press time:
• Allowing judges appointed to unexpired terms to serve the entire term without having to run in a special election;
• Lengthening terms from four to eight years for circuit, chancery and county court judges;
• Giving the Secretary of State authority to audit the books and records of a political committee and to impose civil penalties of up to
$10,000 per day for delinquent campaign finance reports; and
• Broadening the definition of “independent expenditures” in judicial elections.
Under the current law, the governor fills judicial vacancies. If more than nine months remain between the appointment and the next regular judicial election, the appointee is required to run in a special election to fill the unexpired term of the office.
According to the report: “This can result in a situation in which the appointee will assume the judicial office and then be required to immediately begin the task of campaigning for an election a year away.
Furthermore, in some situations, after that special election is held, the winner of the special election will be required to seek office again a mere two years later. Thus, the judge will be required to spend an inordinate amount of time campaigning and fundraising instead of being able to devote full attention to judicial duties.”
Biloxi attorney Donald C. Dornan Jr., chairman of the methods and selection committee of the Study Commission and president of The Mississippi Bar, said, “The whole idea is that judges should not have to take the oath of office today and turn around tomorrow and have to start raising money for an election.”
Campaign election reform
Supreme Court Chief Justice Edwin L. Pittman, who spent roughly $33,000 in his first election contest for Supreme Court justice in 1988, said high campaign spending and some of the advertising content in the 2000 elections for Supreme Court and Court of Appeals judges caused great concern among constituents. One judge spent close to $900,000 on the campaign, he said.
“These are shocking figures for a judicial election,” said Pittman.
Circuit Judge Keith Starrett of McComb said the high cost of campaigning “cheapens the office of judge.”
“We’ve got to find a way to get the big money out of the judicial races, especially the appellate court races,” he said.
During the elections in 2000 for the Mississippi Supreme Court, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce placed several ads. At least two candidates turned to the courts for relief, alleging that the U.S. Chamber had violated the campaign reporting and disclosure laws of Mississippi. The U.S. Chamber claimed it was exempt from the reporting and disclosure laws of Mississippi because the advertisements were “issue advertisements” and did not advocate the election of any candidate.
On two occasions in one case, injunctive relief was granted, and the U.S. Supreme Court subsequently stayed the lower court’s injunction on both occasions. At press time, one case was pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.
“We focused on a proposed rule requiring the recusal of judges involving cases assigned to them in which major donors are parties or attorneys appearing before them in litigation,” said Dornan.
Starrett said, “A real problem is people making contributions in other people’s names. If you don’t address this problem, you can do recusal limits all you want and it will never be meaningful.”
Blackmon said there’s always a push for more disclosure.
“In my mind, we’ve addressed those issues,” he said. “The only other issue is enforcement and I would assume that we have everything in place to make sure that current laws are being followed.”
Stevens said even though the MTLA might not sponsor some election reform issues, its members will support them.
“For example, we will likely support Judge Pittman’s proposal that judges who are appointed should serve the unfulfilled portion of their predecessor’s term,” he said.
Pittman said lengthening terms for trial judges and shortening the campaign time would help, even though some trial judges oppose the abbreviated campaigning time.
Compared to other states in the nation, Mississippi trial court judges have relatively short terms. In Alabama, Florida and Louisiana, all have six-year terms for trial court judges. In Kentucky and Tennesse
court judges are elected to serve eight-year terms. In New York and Pennsylvania, trial court judges serve terms of 10 years, according to the study commission report.
After much debate, the study commission concluded not to recommend changing the method of selection of judges from elected to appointed.
“I don’t think we will ever