Peanut butter, ham and a hunger for reform
Sunday, July 1, 2001
Two prominent Meridianites from very different professions had food on their minds as their words made it into the pages of The Meridian Star over the past few days.
It started last Sunday in an "In my own words" piece written by attorney Joe Clay Hamilton. In a stirring recital of what grand juries ought to be, Hamilton cautioned that the system has changed over the years.
Now, instead of protecting the rights of people charged with crimes, grand juries are little more than a tool of the local district attorney.
Hamilton, himself a former district attorney, chose a food analogy to illustrate his point.
Hamilton recounted one four-year period in which Lauderdale County empaneled 160 grand jurors for eight sessions, but only 52 different people appeared during the entire four years.
Forty percent of those were relatives or employees of the board of supervisors.
He hastened to add he was not criticizing grand jurors. "Most of them are conscientious and want to do their duty," he wrote. "The problem is that the system doesn't allow them to even find out what their duties and powers are."
Their sessions are under tight control of the district attorney, he wrote, and grand jurors are rushed through such a crushing load of criminal cases that they have about three minutes to find probable cause that a defendant should actually be tried.
Of 1,434 recent presentments, 96.5 percent were indicted.
Sort of like slinging hash during a busy noon hour at a New York deli (my analogy, not Hamilton's).
Hamilton argues a district attorney should exercise independent judgment to protect those who are innocent, as well as prosecute the guilty.
And then comes Dr. R. Scott Anderson, a local radiation oncologist who spoke for the Mississippi Medical Association on a statewide tour focusing on the increasing number of medical lawsuits and awards in this state.
Anderson called it an "epidemic" of lawsuit abuse. He and Johnny Williamson, operations manager of Metro Ambulance, urged the public to lobby for tort reform in Mississippi.
Tort reform shouldn't be confused with cooking those delightful little pastries known as tarts. Nor is it the same as that rich cake made with eggs and ground nuts known as a torte.
Fed up with way too generous awards for injuries, Anderson said Alabama has adopted tort reform and, as a result, some of the big law firms there have curtailed operations in Alabama and opened offices in Mississippi.
Citing figures from the Medical Assurance Company of Mississippi, the largest insurer of physicians in the state, Anderson said the number of lawsuits against physicians rose 24 percent between 1999 and 2000, and has increased another 24 percent so far this year.
Only 10 percent of the lawsuits ever went to trial and 73 percent resulted in no reward for the plaintiff.
Anderson said frivolous cases are driving up the costs of treatment for patients as well as the cost of practicing for physicians.
Curtailing the explosion of medical malpractice lawsuits, stopping frivolous lawsuits of any nature, and the vision of grand juries as investigating bodies with independence from the district attorney's office certainly provide food for thought, a full plate of issues on which to dine.
Hmmm … anyone hungry?
Buddy Bynum is editor of The Meridian Star. Call him at 693-1551, ext. 3213, or e-mail him at email@example.com.