A proposed rule change that would require certain businesses to be represented by an attorney when appearing in justice court in a civil case has both the business community and justice court judges up in arms.
With the proposal, known as Rule 2.12, now pending before the Mississippi Supreme Court, the justice court judges and business advocates are rallying to see the proposal shelved — and quickly.
“The board of directors of the Mississippi Justice Court Judges Association is not in favor of Rule 2.12,” said Hon. Clark Secoy, a justice court judge in Sharkey County and president of the Mississippi Justice Court Judges Association. “Personally, I think Rule 2.12 would be a burden on a lot of businesses that currently file claims in justice court. I hope the Supreme Court will realize this and not approve Rule 2.12.”
Late last month, the Association held its annual convention on the Coast, and Secoy said Rule 2.12 dominated conversations.
“It’s a bad, bad, bad, bad rule,” said Jimmy Morton, a justice court judge in Hinds County who served on the committee that proposed the rule. “It would alter the landscape of justice courts forever.”
Even though he served on the committee, even Morton was unsure exactly how or why the proposed rule change was introduced.
“This was not in response to any complaints or issues. It came out of nowhere. In essence, it’s trying to fix something that isn’t broken,” Morton said.
He added that the mission of the committee’s work was to ensure uniformity of forms and procedures across all of the state’s justice courts. The requirement of attorney representation was outside the committee’s intended purpose, he said.
When the proposal was enacted and filed with the Mississippi Supreme Court, Morton resigned from the committee.
“I don’t want to make it sound like it was high drama,” Morton said. “I simply told them I didn’t want my name attached to Rule 2.12. The committee did some great work. But after spending countless hours in meetings and all of the work I put in, I would rather see all of our proposals die than see this bad rule implemented.”
Both Morton and Secoy said the person who could give more details on exactly how Rule 2.12 came about in the first place is Jerry Jones, a justice court judge in Webster County and chair of the Justice Court Rules Committee. Jones filed the proposed rule change with the Mississippi Supreme Court.
Attempts to reach Jones by press time were unsuccessful.
Rule 2.12 “requires corporations, limited liability companies or partnerships that are parties to be represented by an attorney.” In essence, this includes all businesses except sole proprietorships.
Proponents of the rule “were concerned that an officer or manager of a corporation, limited liability company or partnership commencing a civil action on behalf of a corporation, limited liability company or partnership would be engaging in the unauthorized practice of law in violation of section 73-3-55 of the Mississippi Code.
“Article 3, Section 25 of the Mississippi Constitution permits a person to represent himself, per se, in a civil proceeding, but it does not appear to extend the privilege beyond a personal claim.”
The committee added, “To accept the advantages of incorporating or forming a partnership, and then demand the benefits of individual ownership, seems a bit untenable.”
On the other side of the argument, the committee wrote that members against Rule 2.12 felt it “…would fundamentally alter the role of justice courts in handling small claims filed by local businesses and apartment owners. This position is consistent with several other states that permit corporate officers or employees to present small claims…”
Morton was quick to point out that legal representation would be required whether a business is the plaintiff or defendant. If a tire shop wanted to go to court to collect on a $400 unpaid bill, it would need an attorney, he said. If that same business was brought to justice court by a customer claiming those tires were mounted incorrectly, the tire shop would need an attorney for that, too.
Ron Aldridge, head of the National Federation of Independent Business/Mississippi, said, “This court is the ‘people’s court,’ and one of its purposes is to provide the most economical justice — one that is affordable for all. This rule would negate that most worthy goal.
“Many small businesses routinely utilize the Justice Court for ongoing matters such as the collection of open accounts, bad checks and past due rents and the need to have either tenants or storage items removed for non-payment, as well as many other matters.
“The enormous expense of being required to hire an attorney in these routine business matters would shut down many businesses. It’s a job-killer and tax revenue reducer.”
It might be a while before the Mississippi Supreme Court makes a decision.
The proposed rule was filed May 10. The first step is a review of the rule by the Court, which can decide to shelve it or make recommendations and/or amendments. There is no set time frame for the Court review.
If the rule makes it through the review, it is open to public comment. Typically, public comment periods are for 30 days, but can vary.
After the public review, the Court would then make its final decision.
This can be a lengthy process. As example, another proposed rule change concerning judicial conduct is ahead of Rule 2.12 on the docket. That earlier proposed rule was filed in April 2010, and is yet to see final decision from the Court.