State’s method of selecting judges needs major overhaul

Published 5:00 am Monday, July 7, 2008

With the sentencing of Dickie Scruggs and his son Zach to prisonlast week, and with others awaiting to hear their fate in thecoming days, a sad chapter in Mississippi judicial history iscoming to a close – one that has rocked the very foundation thestate is built upon.

While the debate will continue on why someone so successful asScruggs would jeopardize everything with a $40,000 bribe, theintrigue will continue as further investigations may lead thisdeeper in to the Mississippi judicial and political system.

In his latest mystery thriller “The Appeal,” Mississippi authorJohn Grisham paints a troubling story of judicial corruption inthis state. A story that has a fictional Brookhaven lawyer turnedpolitician, as one of the main characters in an election showdownthat pits big business against the state’s trial lawyers in aneffort to get certain judges elected to the Mississippi SupremeCourt. The fact that Scruggs spent a number of his formative yearsin Brookhaven and attended Brookhaven public schools adds a bit ofuncomfortable irony for us here in Southwest Mississippi.

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We will not spoil the ending, but find it is interesting thatGrisham in his closing editor’s note defends the state but commentsthat his story, although fictional, hits too close to reality inMississippi. “As long as private money is allowed in judicialelections we will see competing interests fight for seats on thebench,” Grisham says.

One thing that needs to be clear is that unlike the story inGrisham’s book, the real life Scruggs scandal was not a tit-for-tateffort of trial lawyers fighting big business – the Scruggs eventwas about trial lawyers taking on trial lawyers, eating their ownone might say; with money and greed being the motive.

Scruggs’ guilty plea is an indictment on Mississippi’s currentjudicial system and exposes the weakness of our system in selectingjudges through the electoral process.

While no system is perfect – be it elective or appointive – we doknow the system we have in Mississippi is broken and the only wayto fix it is to fundamentally reform it. We won’t pretend to knowthe answer but the debate needs to begin and begin quickly.