Extraordinary: Pittman's fresh air wafting through the cloistered confines of the Mississippi Supreme Court
JACKSON Working quietly, mostly behind the scenes on technical matters of law and legal appeals, justices of the Mississippi Supreme Court aren't easily recognized for what they are:
Politicians, and human beings, who either ran for or were appointed to their positions,
Honest interpretations of state law, philosophical and intellectual deliberations and a feeling that justices' decisions reflect real-world experiences were not among criticisms that emerged in the last election cycle.
No, if you paid attention, you'd think candidates for Supreme Court were more interested in protecting drug dealers, helping huge corporations pillage the environment, killing education and kicking loose hardened criminals from Parchman.
Given that background and the damage suffered to the court's image and credibility by a rough-and-tumble political process involving money from trial lawyers and the business community the feeling in a conference room here the other day was that something extraordinary was taking place.
Chief Justice Edwin Lloyd Pittman a veteran of nine elections and one of the most successful politicians ever produced by the state of Mississippi was taking steps to solve a political image problem that will not go away on its own.
The political problem is how to repair damage done to the image of the high court by a flood of money to candidates whose main objective seemed to be winning at any cost.
One of the byproducts of electing justices to the Supreme Court is they are, first, political candidates, subject more to political rules than judicial rules. Some argue this process is good because it gives voters direct, albeit periodic, impact at the ballot box.
The reality is that, beyond groups of lawyers and attuned businesspeople, most of us are neither tuned in nor turned on to Supreme Court elections. We are bewildered by the advertising and have no clue how ads relate to a justice's on the job performance. And some people like it that way.
Their election from regional districts leads others to argue the court is fragmented by regional political considerations.
While a code of judicial conduct attempts to apply minimum standards, Pittman said he is taking additional steps with agreement of a majority of the other justices.
One of his actions has already been reported opening oral arguments to real-time coverage on the Internet and making a place for newspaper photographers inside the Supreme Court. This action is unprecedented.
The court will soon hire a public information officer to work with the news media in putting decisions into plain language we all can understand. This person will help keep the media advised so that we, in turn, may keep the public advised of Supreme Court activities. Electronic access to motions and other filings is to be expanded. Sanctions against lawyers who file frivolous lawsuits will be publicized.
Will moves such as these improve the dignity of the court and give it a more positive image among Mississippi voters? Will it serve the cause of justice?
A guess is Mississippi voters begin to care about electing Supreme Court justices about the time political ads hit television. Last year, we were subjected to a barrage of hard-hitting, credibility- destroying, character-assassinating TV ads that stretched the limits of believability.
And it left a terrible, sour taste in the mouths of most reasonable people.
Out of the mire'
Pittman, whose investiture as chief justice is scheduled Jan. 22, wants the Supreme Court to be a philosophical body whose decisions reflect a connection between the law and the public's interest.
In his words, he is "trying to lift the judicial system out of the mire," and will have future suggestions on how justices should be selected.
Impressed by the openness of Florida courts during the presidential recount and, no doubt, glued to the seemingly hourly action Pittman said lessons are appropriate for Mississippi.
Traditionally, intended or not, the Mississippi Supreme Court has been the exclusive domain of lawyers versed in the legal process of appealing unfavorable decisions by lower courts. Justices might have well have posted a sign that said "Public Keep Out." You can't even get to the Supreme Court without a security check.
The court's inner workings have never been well-publicized. The prevailing attitude seemed to be Supreme Court sessions were too important to waste on common folk.
Yet the common folk have just as much right to access and information from the Supreme Court as it does from any other state body.
Last week's session with the chief justice was a juxtaposition, him taking notes while editors and news directors offered their comments on the state of the court today.
It looks like a refreshing breath of fresh air.
Chief Justice Pittman is going to give us an opportunity to pay attention. What we do with the opportunity is our decision to make.
Buddy Bynum is editor of The Meridian Star. E-mail him at email@example.com.