Lawmakers file a handful of bills each session to seek additional judges for their regions. State law specifies what criteria should be considered, including population of the district, the number of cases filed there, the caseload of each judge and the geographic area of the district.
Rep. Mark Baker, R-Brandon, chairman of the House Judiciary A Committee, said past decisions on new judges often came back to caseload and a few other factors. He said that during the 2015 session, his committee looked initially at the number of residents compared to the number of judges.
“We ranked the districts on population, looked at that along with caseload and keeping in mind the number of new judges we could afford. Then, we put the pieces of the puzzle together,” Baker said.
House Bill 703 signed last month by Gov. Phil Bryant, sets a June 1 qualifying deadline for those running for the new judgeships, and the election is Nov. 3 — the same day that voters elect eight statewide officials, including a governor; several regional officials; 174 legislators and a slew of county officials.
Judicial candidates run without party labels, and the six new judges will take office Jan. 1 to serve abbreviated, three-year terms. Starting with the next regularly scheduled judicial elections in 2019, the judges in the new posts will serve regular, four-year terms.
House Bill 703 provides for one new judge each in the:
— 4th Chancery District in Amite, Franklin, Pike and Walthall counties.
— 11th Chancery District in Holmes, Leake, Madison and Yazoo counties.
— 12th Chancery District in Clarke and Lauderdale counties.
— 12th Circuit District in Forrest and Perry counties.
— 15th Circuit District in Jefferson Davis, Lamar, Lawrence, Marion and Pearl River counties.
— 20th Circuit District in Madison and Rankin counties.
Chancery courts have jurisdiction over disputes in matters involving equity; domestic matters including adoptions, custody disputes and divorces; guardianships; sanity hearings; wills; and challenges to constitutionality of state laws. Land records are filed in chancery court. Chancery courts have jurisdiction over juvenile matters in counties which have no county court.
Currently, Mississippi has 49 chancery judges in 20 districts. That moves up to 52 judges in the same number of districts.
Circuit courts hear felony criminal prosecutions and civil lawsuits. They also hear appeals from county, justice and municipal courts and from some administrative boards and commissions.
Currently, Mississippi has 53 circuit judges in 22 districts. That moves up to 56 judges in the same number of districts. Chancery and circuit judges are currently paid $128,042 annually. Their salaries will increase to $136,000 on Jan. 1, 2016.
Lawmakers did not approve any new judges in 2014 but did approve 16 new assistant district attorneys across the state to go also with substantial changes to the criminal justice system. The changes were supported by judges, prosecutors and lawmakers who spent months studying the criminal justice system.
The changes also impacted how the courts would operate.
The changes require anyone convicted of a violent offense to serve at least 50 percent of a sentence, and anyone convicted of a nonviolent offense to serve at least 25 percent. Judges received more flexibility to impose alternate sentences, such as ordering treatment for drug users. Circuit courts were authorized to establish treatment programs for military veterans who might have traumatic brain injuries, depression or drug and alcohol problems.
For the first time, Mississippi law specified which crimes are classified as violent, for sentencing purposes.