Changes improve courts, Justice Pittman believes

Published 6:00 am Thursday, March 28, 2002

Pending legislation and some proposed judicial conduct changeswould go a long way toward improving the state’s court system,Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Ed Pittman saidWednesday.

Speaking to the Brookhaven Kiwanis Club, Pittman touted somecourt-initiated changes and lobbied for two bills currently beforelawmakers. The bills deal with extending trial judges’ terms inoffice from four years to six years and how vacancies on theSupreme Court are handled.

The latter bill would allow the governor to appoint a newjustice for the remainder of the old justice’s term, but oneversion of the bill would still require a special election if thevacancy occurs in the first half of an eight-year term. House andSenate conferees are expected to work out differences.

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Pittman said he is for an elected judiciary. However, the chiefjustice said judges have to spend too much time trying to raisecampaign funds to run in costly elections, which are held attaxpayer expense.

“The citizens of this state should not have to support that kindof cost for elections,” Pittman said, pointing out that the trialjudge term bill would reduce the number of elections byone-third.

Gov. Ronnie Musgrove has signed a bill to extend the terms ofchancery, circuit and county court judges from four to six years.The measure, though, also requires a voter-approved constitutionalamendment, and a resolution is in conference as lawmakers try todecide whether to make the longer terms effective in 2003 or in2007.

Pittman supported extending terms as soon as possible.

“If you vote to change it, why in the world would you want towait until 2007 to make it effective,” Pittman asked.

Pittman also discussed other changes that have or would improvethe perception of the state’s court system.

The justice cited Internet broadcast of oral arguments beforethe Supreme Court. He said that allows citizens to see firsthandhow court is handled and to form their own opinions, which aresupplemented by the media.

“I believe if the people have the opportunity to look in and seehow we’re doing that, invariably, we do better,” Pittman said.

Pittman said Mississippi is one of five or six states in thenation to broadcast supreme court oral arguments.

“We sit up a little bit straighter because the cameras are on,”Pittman said.

Pittman mentioned some proposed “time standards” recommendationsto speed up the legal process and some Code of Judicial Conductchanges that he believes would further equity, fairness andpropriety in the court system. Regarding the time standards,Pittman said he was “absolutely floored” at the reaction of judgesin the state’s circuit and chancery court districts.

“You would have thought I was asking everyone of them toresign,” Pittman said.

The time standards involve getting a trial court decision indomestic cases within 120 days. The justice is also seekingimproved supervision of court dockets so citizens know the statusof their cases.

“It is your business the how the court is run,” Pittmansaid.

Pittman complimented Lincoln County Chancery Court Judge EdPatten on his initiative in developing a court docket. He saidjudges must to responsible for moving cases along.

“We cannot depend on lawyers to drive the docket in thecourtroom. It’s got to be the judges,” Pittman said.

In tort issues, Pittman said a rule change puts a cap on thebond amount when a company seeks to appeal a jury verdict. Now,instead of having to post a bond equal to 125 percent of the jury’spunitive award, which can be hundreds of millions of dollars, thecap is placed at no more than $100 million.

Regarding judicial conduct changes, Pittman discussed judgerecussals and has proposed a peremptory challenge to allow acitizen to prevent a judge they do not like from hearing theircase. The justice said 18 states have judicial peremptory challengelaws.

“I don’t see anything wrong with that,” Pittman said.

The justice, however, said he was rejected in his efforts.

When judges are asked to recuse themselves from hearing cases,Pittman has proposed they file a written ruling on the motionwithin 14 days and also have the motion subject to a hearing inopen court. The justice said the state conferences of chancery andcircuit judges have passed resolutions opposing those changes.