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Thoughts on the fall of judges

By By Suzanne Monk / managing editor
July 27, 2003
A Mississippi Supreme Court justice and his ex-wife, a prominent lawyer, a former circuit court judge and a former chancery court judge were indicted Friday by a federal grand jury.
The indictment is 34 pages long and includes 16 separate counts, but what it comes down to is that Gulf Coast attorney Paul Minor is accused of buying judges.
Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz Jr., former Circuit Judge John H. Whitfield and former Chancery Judge Walter W. "Wes" Teel are accused of allowing themselves to be bought and handing down favorable rulings to Minor's clients.
Does it get any worse?
Why it's so shocking
In our culture, with its largely Judeo-Christian roots, before there were kings, there were judges. But the people wanted to be like their neighbors.
The elders of Israel went to Samuel when he was old and said, "Now, make us a king to judge us like all the nations." Eventually, God gave us Saul as a first course and nothing has ever been the same.
Now, admittedly, the function of modern-day judges intersects only partially with the charge of Old Testament judges but there are enough points of similarity that I think our Sunday school upbringing twists inside us when judges fall.
The mythic idealism that surrounds the founding of the United States also has its part in the reaction. Our constitution assures us that judges are required to be absolutely impartial and above reproach.
It has to be that way for the system to work. Even the slightest feeling of mistrust, the hint that any judge has his own agenda, and confidence in the overall ability of the courts to deliver a fair trial is destroyed.
Elected officials are indicted all the time but it's worse when it's a judge. In an environment where every other news story is about scandal or intrigue, it is routine to hear that a politician has been accused.
But, a judge is not supposed to be a politician.
Quick takes:
Same rules: As we reel around outraged, it's important to remember that these accused people are entitled to the same protections as any other defendants. They are innocent until proven guilty.
Although I will say that the prosecutors which include U.S. Attorney Dunn Lampton, the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI must be very confident about their case. To come after a Supreme Court justice, they would pretty much have to be.
And, they're still innocent until proven guilty.
Coming appeals: I would imagine that the financial transactions alleged in the indictment will be easy to prove. Proving that Minor's clients were "more equal" than other people in the courtroom is an intangible and will be more difficult. At the very least, be sure that lawyers all over the state are scrutinizing the outcomes of cases they were involved in and a rush of appeals in all three courts is probable.
No lawyer jokes, please: To be fair, it is no less shocking that a lawyer stands accused of buying judges. I don't know, really, why lawyers are vilified as immoral. For that matter, I don't know why journalists are either. But, I have already heard jaded comments expressing no surprise: "Well, they're all that way. This one just got caught."
Timing: Generally, federal indictments generated by the U.S. Attorney's office in Jackson are handed down twice a month once about the 15th and once toward the end of the month. This one, a lone indictment on July 25, midway between, is a little unusual.
The first Associated Press alert that it was coming was issued Friday at about 4:45 p.m. The faxed copy did not arrive until after 6 p.m. It looks a lot like the timing was designed to try to build in a little breathing space for "official sources" by making it hard for reporters to get hold of anyone until Monday.
More symptoms: The indictment of Oliver Diaz is not the only sign that all is not well with the high court. Dissenting opinions written in the last six months, most notably by outgoing Justice Charles McRae, have grown increasingly undiplomatic. And, the Supreme Court's authority is being challenged right now by an extraordinary appeal to Gov. Ronnie Musgrove. More on this later.