System for selecting judges in need of review

Published 6:00 am Monday, January 28, 2008

Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice James Smith issuggesting it is time to take a look at how appellate judges areselected in the state.

Smith’s comments last week come following the November federalindictments of power plaintiffs attorney Richard “Dickie” Scruggsand others in an alleged bribery scheme involving a northMississippi circuit judge. Since individuals’ ethics are part ofthe equation, Smith said his suggestions probably would not addressconcerns related to the federal case, but he is interested in areview of a judge selection process.

We have to agree that a review of how judges are chosen isappropriate.

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The elected method employed now puts judges in the position ofhaving to accept contributions, some from attorneys, to financecostly campaigns in order to win election. We want to believe alljudges to be above board, but the election method at least createsthe perception for a judge to feel beholden to a contributor and adesire to rule in his favor.

While no selection system is perfect, an appointed method wouldseem to lessen the influence of money in the process. A furtherdecrease in the influence of politics and money comes in the formof a judicial advisory panel – like the one Gov. Haley Barbour usesnow – that evaluates judge nominees and then makes a recommendationto the governor.

Mississippians, though, love elections and in the past haverejected efforts to lengthen judicial terms, thereby reducing thenumber of times they get to vote on a judge. Also, many statelawmakers have not felt any great urge to change the statusquo.

The best of both worlds could be found in a hybrid system nowused by around 30 states. In those states, judges are initiallyappointed and then face a retention election at some point in thefuture.

Any method of choosing judges is only as good as the peopleparticipating the process, but recent court events dictate it istime for Mississippi to at least review the system it now uses.