he Mississippi Bar Association’s “Task Force to Strengthen Confidence in the Legal System” has released its initial report for member review and comment. I wrote about the report in this week’s Reasonably Right. Here are some excerpts:
The report begins, “The legal system in Mississippi has recently been inexcusably shamed by investigations, indictments, convictions and pleas involving lawyers and even judges…these recent events have caused widespread loss of respect for, and loss of confidence in, our legal system as a whole.” Because such a system “will not long by tolerated by the society it is expected to serve” the task force suggests several reforms to “heal our legal system.”
The report calls money the “core of today’s mistrust of Mississippi’s legal system” with the crux being the high cost of elections for the Mississippi Supreme Court, and the “staggering” fees awarded to outside lawyers hired by the office of attorney general to sue on behalf of the state.
The report recommends moving from an elected to an appointed system for choosing member of the Supreme Court. This idea actually became an issue in a 2008 supreme court campaign. Former Chief Justice Jim Smith had suggested the study of and consideration of just such an alteration. His opponent, Jim Kitchens, used that as a campaign issue and spent nearly a million dollars in his successful campaign to unseat Smith.
I have mixed feelings on the appointment vs election argument; but personally, I’m comfortable with the current system.
The report notes the role of Mississippi’s Attorney General has changed over the years from a legal advisor and chief lawyer to a “high profile crusader.” It says, “More and more, the office [of attorney general] has exercised its power to pursue high-profile criminal investigations and/or highly-publicized civil cases. Public confidence that such power is not subject to potential misuse is essential. The means to public confidence is a fully informed public.”
The report recommends: “Fees paid to private lawyers appointed as special assistant state attorneys general should be subject to open and impartial scrutiny.” Such openness should be in writing and on the internet, include disclosures of any campaign contributions or gifts between the attorney in contract and the attorney general, contain records of time spent and expenses incurred, and involve outside and independent (the report recommends judicial) approval of the fees.
The Mississippi Legislature is currently considering shining just such accountability onto the Attorney General, which would fulfill this recommendation by the task force. (In full disclosure, I have a client who is promoting “sunshine legislation” before the Legislature.)
Other recommendations by the task force include greater disclosure of lawyers who contribute to judicial campaigns, creating a procedure for an independent resolution of recusal motions, increased judicial and legal education, and higher salaries for judges.
Members of the Mississippi Bar have until March 30 to submit comments to the task force, before the report is reviewed by the Mississippi Bar Association.
You can read the full column at the Neshoba Democrat: Perry / Judicial reform