State should reconsider how judges are chosen for bench

Published 5:00 am Monday, August 29, 2005

Although a jury this month was unable to convict four defendantsin Mississippi’s high-profile judicial bribery trial, the caseexposed flaws in Mississippi’s judicial system and the way judgesare selected.

In all, 17 counts against a state Supreme Court justice, twoformer Gulf Coast judges and a prominent north Mississippi lawyeralleged a complex web of cash, loans and gifts to ensure favorableverdicts.

The jury found Justice Oliver Diaz – accused of bribery, mailfraud and wire fraud – innocent of all charges. U.S. Attorney DunnLampton said after the trial that his office knew it would bedifficult to convict Diaz. The three remaining defendants wereacquitted on some charges, while the jury was unable to reach averdict on others.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

While Diaz has been cleared, a cloud lingers over attorney PaulMinor and former Judges John Whitfield and Wes Teel, all of whomLampton has said he may retry on the unresolved charges. Theaccusations, the doubts and the players involved in thejust-concluded trial expose the shortcomings state’sjudicial-selection process by popular vote to the light of day.

In Mississippi, most judges are elected by popular vote, makingthose who sit on the bench subject to the same influence by donorsand special-interest groups as any other politician.

If the members of any profession should be beyond reproach, itshould be those who sit in judgment of others. While prosecutorscould not definitively prove corruption among the lawyer and judgesaccused in this case, they certainly raised enough questions tomake many Mississippians stop and think there must be a betterway.

While electing judges is certainly a flawed practice, anappointive process has its pitfalls, too. Just as judges should notenter office beholden to the special interests that funded theircampaigns, neither should they rise to the bench as payback fortheir own political support.

How, then, can we find the most qualified judges free of undueinfluence?

While no method will produce perfect results, a hybridselection-election process, such as that used in Oklahoma, seems tomerit serious consideration.

Under Oklahoma law, the governor appoints Supreme Court andappeals court judges based on the advice of a nominatingcommission. Then, after at least one year on the bench, judges mustface the public in an election to retain their seats. Those whohave earned the public’s confidence then serve a six-year term,while those who have not are replaced.

Under such a system, special interests and individuals – nomatter how deep their pockets – will find it increasingly difficultto unduly influence the judicial process, thus helping shield thepublic from corruption and the judges from the appearancethereof.

And with recent Mississippi happenings still fresh in mind, thatwould come as welcome relief to all.