Miss. high court needs money for judges to hear Katrina insurance cases

Published 1:10 am Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Mississippi Supreme Court needs more money to hire special judges to preside over Hurricane Katrina-related insurance lawsuits, says Chief Justice Jim Smith.

Judges in George, Greene and Jackson counties have stepped down from hearing such cases.

The Supreme Court appoints judges to hear cases, if a judge is unwilling or unable to hear a case.

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While lawmakers provide some funds this year of such appointment, Smith said most of the cases will come up for trial in 2007. He is asking for a total of $240,000 in the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2007. That is a $168,494 increase over this year’s allocation.

Circuit Judge Dale Harkey, one of the three judges who recused themselves, said they stepped aside in the cases to prevent any appearance of impropriety.

“In one way or another, we all had substantial damage (to property),” Harkey said. “We all had dealings with insurers.”

Harkey said the judges hated that recusing themselves may lead to a delay in some of the cases coming to trial, but believed they had no choice other than to step aside.

Smith told member of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee this week that trial judges in Harrison, Hancock and Stone counties may also step aside from hearing some homeowners’ and businesses’ insurance cases.

Hundreds of lawsuits have been filed on the Gulf Coast against insurers, the state port at Gulfport and various shipping companies over damages caused by Katrina.

As of Friday, 275 civil lawsuits relating to Katrina damage were filed in Harrison County, according to the circuit clerk’s office.

“I can’t ask any sitting trial judge to go down and hear that many cases,” Smith said of the need to have semiretired judges to hear such cases where judges may have recused themselves.

Smith said there are more retired chancery judges than circuit judges.