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Changes normal for judicial system

Recent judicial turnover causes confusion among citizens

Recent changes among judges in Mississippi’s judicial system may be confusing to some state citizens, but legal experts say the turnover is the natural progression of keeping judges on the courts’ benches. An appointment to the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court left a vacancy on the Mississippi Supreme Court, which was filled by a judge from the Court of Appeals, leaving a vacancy to be filled on that court.

Mark Herbert, a shareholder in the Watkins Ludlam Winter and Stennis law firm, says the changes are a natural progression up the ladder for a number of deserving judges. “Once Justice James Graves received his confirmation, it opened some opportunities for judges who had shown promise to advance to a higher position,” he said. “When you think about it, there really is not much opportunity for advancement for judges unless you leave one position and run for a higher office.”

He doesn’t think the dynamics or politics have changed much, if at all. He sees the balance between the competing interests as still pretty much the same, which is “good news, bad news” for all interested parties. “There was a danger that the racial makeup of the Mississippi Supreme Court would change without a black justice and that would have been an issue, but that seems to have been solved with the elevation of Justice Leslie King.”

As for the impact of the changes on attorneys arguing before these courts, Herbert says there’s no significant impact as the same justices will still be hearing the cases although they may be in different positions.

“It is not unusual to have some turnover in the judiciary,” said Dean Richard Gershon of the University of Mississippi School of Law. “Judges at these high levels tend to be successful lawyers, who enter the judiciary as a matter of public service. They typically take large pay cuts to become judges. Pay increases for judges, particularly at the state level, would help ease some of this attrition. Justices of the Mississippi Supreme Court are the lowest paid of any state in the country.”

Noting that the Fifth Circuit judges have lifetime appointments, Gershon said changes in that court happen less often than with other courts.

“Lawyers have to prepare their arguments based upon the law and facts, irrespective of who is judging their case,” Gershom said. “Of course, judges are human beings so they do have different personalities. A lawyer is wise to know as much about the judge as he can before arguing a case. The same could be said about a baseball pitcher knowing how each different umpire views balls and strikes.”

Gulfport attorney H. Rodger Wilder with the Balch & Bingham firm views the courts turnover as generally a good thing. “I say generally because I hate to see Judge Graves leave the Mississippi Supreme Court where he has been an outstanding jurist,” he said. “He’ll do well on the Fifth Circuit. The relative ease with which his nomination went through is a reflection of how well respected he is.”

He added that Judge King is an excellent choice to replace Justice Graves, as is Judge Lee’s selection to replace Judge King. “We are fortunate to have excellent appellate judges in this state,” he said. “We’ve lost a good justice to the Fifth Circuit but our courts will not miss a beat.”

Likewise, Dean Jim Rosenblatt of the Mississippi College School of Law sees the turnover in judges as the opportunity for two experienced attorneys to move up in the court hierarchy.

“Justice James Graves was a presiding justice at the Mississippi Supreme Court and now moves to an appellate court in the federal system. He will add to the richness of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal judges,” he said. “Chief Judge Leslie King’s appointment as a justice on the Mississippi Supreme Court simply sees him moving from one Mississippi appellate court to another. He will be opining on the same type of cases in his new role.”

Rosenblatt goes on to say that the appointment of Judge Joe Lee as the chief judge of the Mississippi Court of Appeals moves one of the court’s senior judges into the chief judge’s role.

“When a new judge is appointed to the Court of Appeals to fill the vacancy, the effect is likely to be noticeable but not profound,” he said. “Judge Carlton Reeves’ appointment will assist the United States District Court in handling its demanding caseload at the trial level. I predict he will take on a large volume of cases and will be respected in his approach to administering justice.”

Mississippi has a two-tier appellate court system that reviews decisions of law and fact made by the trial courts. The Mississippi Supreme Court is the court of last resort among state courts. Decisions of the Chancery, Circuit and County Courts and of the Court of Appeals may be appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Court of Appeals hears cases assigned by the Supreme Court and is an error correction court. It hears and decides appeals on issues in which the law is already settled but the facts are in dispute. It was created by the Mississippi Legislature in 1995 to speed appeals and relieve a backlog of cases before the Supreme Court.

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