Miss.’s top judge investigator retiring

Published 2:12 am Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The man who has been in charge of investigating Mississippi’s judges since the state set up an agency to do that is retiring at the end of the month.

Luther “Brant” Brantley III has been executive director of the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance since its first day, June 1, 1980. He said he’s been thinking about retirement for years.

“As of now, I have 36 years in state service. … Thirty-six years in state service is about long enough. It’s time to let someone new and different lead the commission.”

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The commission can recommend anything from a private reprimand to removal from office. The state Supreme Court has final say.

He has shown professionalism in a very hard job, said Hinds County Chancery Judge Patricia Wise, immediate past chairperson.

New Commission Chairman Circuit Judge Henry Lackey, who exposed a judicial bribery scheme involving then-lawyer Dickey Scruggs, said Brantley will be difficult to replace.

“There has never been a hint of suspicion that he has an agenda.”

Not everyone agrees. Brantley “should have retired a long time ago,” said Billy Ray Brown, who was removed from the Rankin County Justice Court after more than 25 years on the bench. The Supreme Court removed him in 2005, after the commission found that Brown had used his influence to keep his son out of jail in a domestic abuse case.

Brown did not contest the facts but said the punishment was too severe.

Before heading the commission, Brantley worked for the Mississippi Judicial Council, which existed from 1977-80 and made recommendations on judicial reforms — including creation of the commission.

At that time, Mississippi and Washington were the only states without an agency for dealing with errant judges.

“We had no idea what to expect regarding the number of complaints, the seriousness of the complaints, or what size staff we would need,” Brantley said.

The commission began with Brantley, a clerical worker and a part-time investigator. The staff now includes two other attorneys, an investigator, and an administrative assistant.

The first year, it received 80 judicial complaints, most of them against Justice Court judges. Last year, it received 322, spread fairly evenly across the judiciary.

Many complaints involved Justice Court judges who also were law enforcement officers, he said.

“A judge might write a ticket as a law enforcement officer and then hear that same ticket as a judge,” Brantley said. “It was like something out of Andy Griffith.”

Senior Staff Attorney Darlene Ballard is expected to be named interim executive director until the position is filled. Lackey said a committee has been formed to review applications.

The committee will select five applicants to submit to the commission, and the commission then will select an executive director from the group.

The starting pay is expected to be about $90,000 a year.