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Funding mechanisms, justice on justices sought

Mississippi attorneys anticipate a busy year in 2004

Creating a judicial nominating committee tops The Mississippi Bar`s priority wish list for the new year.

“We would like to see the governor set up by executive order a judicial nominating committee,” said Jimmie Reynolds III, director of government relations for The Mississippi Bar. “That was one of the priorities of Haley Barbour`s campaign. I recently spoke with a member of his staff and indications are that he wants to go ahead. We are very pleased and are offering any assistance in helping him establish it.”

During his campaign, Gov.-elect Haley Barbour said, “If I’m elected governor, I will appoint a Governor`s Judicial Appointments Advisory Committee before I ever appoint the first judge. It will be composed of lawyers —practitioners and legal experts who aren`t practitioners — from around the state. Whenever a vacancy occurs, and it becomes my duty to appoint someone to the bench, first, all of the candidates for that job, everyone who`s interested, would be vetted by this committee. And then the committee will come to me, depending on what the court is, with a small number of people who they find are qualified.

“From that list, I would choose a judge, one who had been sent up by the committee. To me, the qualifications for a judge are pretty simple and straightforward. First, I’m going to appoint judges who are capable, who are able lawyers, who are competent to understand the law and apply it. Secondly, I’m going to appoint judges who not only have integrity, but also have reputations for integrity. The public deserves, and the system that we serve as lawyers deserves, that not only do judges have integrity, but also like Caesar`s wife, there is no appearance other than that. They must be above reproach. Good judges who understand the law, whose reputations are above reproach, being fair — these make this system work better than anything else in the world.”

Barbour spokesperson Quinton Dickerson said the governor-elect is committed to honoring his pledge.

“I don`t have a specific date to tell you as to when this will become finalized, but he is definitely committed to doing this,” he said.

Legislative items

Last year, The Mississippi Bar was instrumental in ushering legislation to create the Mississippi Civil Legal Assistance Fund, which is administered through the Administration Office of the Court (AOC), under the jurisdiction of the state Supreme Court.

“This year, we’re going to look at getting a bill passed to have a funding mechanism for it, like some sort of court filing fee,” said Reynolds. “We had a bill to do that last year in all civil cases — a $5 fee — so we`ll try for that again this year. We’ve got 700,000-plus citizens in the state that financially qualify for legal services, and there are only about 35 federally funded legal services staff attorneys, so there`s a great need for more help in funding legal services offices in the state.”

Shortening the 14-month waiting period between the time some state Supreme Court justices are elected and take office is another top consideration for The Mississippi Bar.

“The Legislature established a judicial advisory study committee for the 14-month timeline in certain Supreme Court districts, namely district one, position one, and district two, place one,” said Reynolds. “In those districts, there is more than a year lapse from the time of an election until the new justice takes office. The other seven Supreme Court district seats are voted on in November and take their seat the following January. No one really knows how those two seats happened to have that kind of time lapse. I’ve talked to the legal staff at the capitol and they said it could have just been an oversight when those seats were set up.”

The Mississippi Bar is also supporting legislation to abolish “herd” elections.

“Presently, nine of the 22 circuit court districts and five of the 20 chancery court districts have herd elections,” said Reynolds. “One chancery and one circuit court district have a sub district, within which the candidates run as a herd, and we believe the system of electing judges should be uniform statewide.”

Mississippi attorneys remain supportive of a state youth court system to bring effective, efficient and competent justice to every county in the state. Improving the system is essential to address the needs of juvenile justice in Mississippi, said Reynolds.

“We’re also supporting funding for statewide regional drug courts,” he said. “Legislation was passed to allow those drug courts to be established, but there was no funding mechanism for them. Judges in three circuit court districts have created their own drug courts in the fourth, seventh and 14th circuit court districts. We believe regional drug courts help save lives while expediting cases through the judicial system. We wholeheartedly support state funding for drug courts across Mississippi.”

Reynolds said the association also supports creating and funding a statewide system for indigent defense on criminal cases.

“We appreciate the Legislature addressing and creating the Office of Capitol Defense Counsel (OCDC) and the Office of Capitol Post Conviction Counsel (OCPCC),” he said. “OCPCC handles death penalty cases on second and subsequent appeals, and the OCDC defends death penalty cases at trial. Legislation was passed several years ago that created a statewide public defender system. In 2000, the Legislature repealed that act and established the Mississippi Public Defenders Task Force to examine the statewide public defender issue.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at mbj@thewritingdesk.com.


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