Justice: Ruling not unethical in bank case

Published 5:42 pm Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A Mississippi Supreme Court justice says he did nothing wrong when he recently joined in a court ruling in favor of a bank in which he owns stock.

Justice Michael Randolph sided with the 6-1 majority June 12 when the court reduced a $1.7 million judgment against BancorpSouth Bank to $74,000 plus interest.

Randolph says he didn’t recuse himself from the case because he owns a minimal amount of stock and the Code of Judicial Conduct doesn’t require judges to step down in such cases.

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The case involved a father’s use of money meant for his sons and the bank’s role in the management of the account.

John White of Iuka, the attorney for the sons whose bank account was cleared out by their father against a court order, has requested a hearing in the case.

Randolph resigned from the BancorpSouth board in Hattiesburg when he came to the bench in 2004. He shared paperwork with The Clarion-Ledger newspaper in Jackson showing he owns 372 shares of bank stock, valued at $8,947 in April. He said there are more than 82 million public shares in circulation.

Randolph said neither party appeared concerned about the potential conflict and neither asked him to recuse himself. He believes the amount of stock he owns is so minimal it doesn’t constitute a conflict.

“A dishonest judge can be purchased for a pint of whiskey,” he said. “A $5,000 contribution will not turn an honest judge’s head.”

The code calls for judges to disqualify themselves in cases where “their impartiality might be questioned by a reasonable person knowing all the circumstances.” The code also suggests a judge step down in a case where a financial interest “could be substantially affected by the outcome.”

Patricia Bennett, a professor at Mississippi College School of Law, said many judges “simply recuse themselves because it does concern a financial interest. Whether you call that substantial or not, that can be debated.”

White said he didn’t learn of Randolph’s stock ownership until after the high court ruled. He declined further comment.

James Patrick Caldwell, the Tupelo attorney for BancorpSouth, declined comment because of the request for a new hearing.

When the Supreme Court ruled, Justice Oliver Diaz Jr. wrote the decision in which the high court reduced the judgment. The justices ruled the bank could not be held responsible for an “honest mistake.”