Judge reprimands clerks over court filings

Published 8:00 pm Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Lincoln County Circuit Clerk’s Office is now operating under stronger oversight following a local judge’s reprimand of deputy clerks for persistent failure to deal with some court cases in a timely manner.

     In a public order dated June 22, Circuit Court Judge Michael Taylor notes documents in some civil cases were recently delivered to local circuit court judges more than a year after they were originally filed with the circuit clerk’s office.

     The improper handling of certain documents apparently began while Terry Lynn Watkins served as circuit clerk. Watkins resigned earlier this year.

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     “These aren’t problems that were created in the last few months,” Taylor said when asked about his order. “This is something that has been happening for over a year.”

     Taylor’s order notes he discussed the matter with Watkins; however, correctives they agreed on were not fully implemented.

     “Apparently, it was never resolved,” Taylor said. “It got better, but there’s no way to know if some fall through the cracks.”

     Taylor and Watkins agreed to a system whereby some civil filings would be placed in a designated box for judges or their clerks to pick up. When asked about Taylor’s June order, Watkins said she thought the matter had been resolved.

     “After the initial discussion, I don’t recall ever having a problem with it,” Watkins said.

     However, Taylor said interim Circuit Clerk Sherry Jordan alerted him and Judge David Strong early in June to the existence of more than a dozen filings they’d never received, some of which had been filed more than a year ago. The documents in question had not been placed in the designated box and in some instances had been misfiled, Taylor said.

     Following this, Taylor privately spoke to deputy clerks in his chambers and released a public order summarizing the problem and the procedures he ordered.

      In his order, Taylor cites the failure of clerks to implement the filing methods he discussed with Watkins as cause for more formal action.

     “There is nothing inherently difficult or confusing about placing files in a designated space for delivery to the court,” the order says. “The deputy clerks understood what was required and failed to follow the court’s directive on numerous occasions.”

     Taylor’s order warns that further failure to comply with instructions could result in contempt of court charges.

     The June order requires the circuit clerk’s office to prepare a weekly list of new civil filings and send that list to each judge’s court administrator. This list can then be checked against the filings received from the clerk’s office.

     This is a new measure he had not discussed with Watkins, the former circuit clerk said.

     “He had never asked that they be sent on a weekly basis,” Watkins said.

     The more formal procedure Taylor mandated has since been adopted by the clerk’s office, Jordan said.

     “It’s been taken care of and there’s no problem now,” said Jordan.

     Jordan declined to offer further comment on the origin or cause of the filing problems.

     Jordan will hold office until a Nov. 6 special election. She was appointed interim clerk in January following a decision by Watkins to plead no contest to a misdemeanor charge of late deposit of county funds and resign from office, part of a plea bargain to escape a trial on felony embezzlement charges.

     Taylor believes Jordan has brought marked changes to the clerk’s office.

     “She’s done a very good job and she’s made some substantial improvements to the office in a short amount of time,” Taylor said.

     The other two counties within Taylor’s jurisdiction, Pike and Walthall, have not experienced the kind of problems seen at the Lincoln Circuit Clerk’s Office, according to the written order.

     In discussing that order, Taylor called the problems in Lincoln County an “aberration” rather than common among such offices.

     “The duty of the clerk’s office is to handle documents and voter rolls,” Taylor said. “The clerk is by definition a custodian of documents. Everyone makes mistakes, but this was a pattern.”

     The civil filings delivered in June required no further action before a judge could consider them, thus making their late delivery even more serious.

     “The problem was with matters that are submitted for decision and don’t have any motions to be heard,” Taylor said. “The minute they are filed, they are ready to be ruled on.”

     The civil filings included post conviction relief motions, employment security appeals and justice court appeals.

     Exacerbating the issue, most or all of the motions were made by people representing themselves.

     “A lot of them are in prison and don’t have any way to communicate their frustrations,” Taylor said. “No one knows something has gone wrong.”

     Mississippi law grants circuit court judges authority over “all proceedings in the clerk’s office.”

       Eight candidates have so far qualified to seek the office of circuit clerk in the Nov. 6 special election.

     Jordan is not among them. Her intent not to run played a role in her appointment to the interim position by county supervisors.