Miss. chief justice suggests change in choosing appellate judges

Published 6:16 pm Thursday, January 24, 2008

The chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court says the state should consider revising the way it chooses appellate judges.

In Mississippi now, voters elect trial court and appellate court judges.

Chief Justice Jim Smith told reporters Wednesday that he would like to see the state move to a system in which Supreme Court justices and Court of Appeals judges are appointed by the governor for six-year terms. An advisory panel of lawyers, business people and groups concerned about open access to the judicial system would recommend appointees, and the governor could accept one or reject them and ask for other recommendations.

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If one of the appellate judges wants another six years on the bench, he or she would go before the voters in a retention election, Smith said.

“Unless you have something like that in the process, I don’t think you could convince the people of Mississippi to give up what they perceive as their right to elect judges,” Smith said.

Under his proposal, the appellate judges’ service would be capped at 12 years on either of the courts.

Smith spoke to journalists after giving a media tour of the new state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals building that is scheduled to open to the public next month.

It was the first time the chief justice has spoken publicly about how Mississippi’s judicial system is affected by the federal indictments handed down in November against multimillionaire trial lawyer Richard “Dickie” Scruggs and others accused of trying to bribe a north Mississippi circuit judge.

Smith said his suggestions about changing the system of choosing appellate judges probably would not solve the problems alleged in the federal indictment. Smith said he believes individual ethics determine whether such problems arise.

However, he said with people focusing on the condition of Mississippi’s judiciary he wanted to take the opportunity to talk about the structure of the system. He said that he believes the scandal has hurt the image of the state’s judicial system.

“This is a very, very small number of individuals involved. Way less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the entire 7,000 lawyers and judges,” Smith said. “I have a great amount of confidence in the bench and the bar of this state. More than 99 percent of our lawyers and judges are totally beyond reproach. I just believe in the system. I believe that we will come through this stronger because of what we will go through.”

Ron Rychlak, a University of Mississippi law professor, said it’s natural for the state’s legal system to be “embarrassed” by the corruption cases, but officials should wait to see how the case is resolved.

“I practiced law in Chicago and it was notorious for a crooked judicial system. We certainly don’t want to be thought of like that,” Rychlak said in a telephone interview. “The best system in the world is going to get corruption. The issue is what you do when you uncover it.”

Smith said he would like to see the state put stricter controls on the types of campaign contributions or loans that lawyers can make to judges.

“However, the United States Supreme Court has repeatedly said, ‘You’re going to have a hard time doing that. If y’all are going to elect judges, anything goes,’ so to speak,” Smith said.

The Legislature would have to approve any changes to Mississippi’s method of choosing judges, and some lawmakers say they see no need to alter the current system.

Smith said he has researched other states’ system of choosing judges. He said his plan takes elements of what he sees working in other places.

“Having researched this pretty carefully, I don’t believe there exists anywhere in the nation a surefire method of eliminating politics, of (ensuring) what I believe to be essential character traits that individual judges and lawyers must possess in this profession,” Smith said.