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Mississippi Supreme Court: A house divided

By Staff
Suzanne Monk / managing editor
Sept. 21, 2003
The Mississippi Supreme Court has been in the news, and for all the wrong reasons, a little bit too much lately, don't you think?
First, Justice Oliver Diaz Jr. is indicted in July by a federal grand jury. The charge? Corruption. Diaz is accused of allowing Gulf Coast attorney Paul Minor to "buy" favorable rulings.
Next, a Gulf Coast newspaper reports that a lot of paper-shredding went on at the Mississippi Supreme Court as subpoenas in the Diaz case were being issued. Although, I'm not sure how much credence I place in a news story based on the word of anonymous "witnesses" against unspecified "court officials."
This week, political columnist Sid Salter reported that a lawsuit in Hinds County Chancery Court against Justice Bill Waller Jr. has been dismissed. The person who filed the lawsuit was anonymous, too, identified only as "Wonda Doe."
The complaint charged that Waller's dual role as a Mississippi Supreme Court justice and brigadier general in the Army National Guard violates the constitution.
Doe was represented by Shane Langston, a prominent Mississippi trial attorney and the son-in-law of Justice Chuck McRae.
High court politics
McRae lost a bid for re-election in November and leaves office on Jan. 1.
Over the last months, his dissenting opinions have become increasingly undiplomatic and have now descended into what can only be characterized as name-calling.
And, again, the surname Langston comes up in a separate and continuing appeal involving Shane Langston's sister.
Cynthia Langston was one of the lawyers in the original tobacco lawsuit. Her appeal stems from the actions of opposing attorneys in that litigation. It includes, on the subject of recusals, extensive discussion of Waller's "dual role" the complaint that formed the basis of Wonda Doe's lawsuit.
I make no inference on these points.
I'm not talking about the merits of the case today, but rather the deep divisions it has exposed in the Mississippi Supreme Court.
The high court has twice rejected Langston's appeal. Her attorney, claiming bias, has taken the extraordinary step of asking Gov. Ronnie Musgrove to intervene.
It is McRae, the outgoing justice, who supports Cynthia Langston's position and leads the charge with blistering minority dissents most recently last week as part of a 72-page opinion issued by the Supreme Court.
Is he right or wrong? I don't know. I'm not a lawyer. What I'm concerned about is his bloody-tooth-and-claw language and long-term damage to the state's appellate court.
Extreme rhetoric
Here's a sample of some of the things McRae has written publicly about his colleagues on the Supreme Court with regard to Cynthia Langston's appeal:
Public trust
Language like this has spun off what appear, in written opinions, to be factions inside the court and dissents-to-the-dissent that are pretty strong in their own right.
Is it just a case of a lame duck justice slashing and burning on his way out of office? Or, is McRae the indignant champion of a righteous cause? Will the disagreements among the justices dissipate once McRae is out of office?
Will anyone survive the next election?
Because that, really, is the long-term problem. This kind of conflict among what are supposed to be the state's most august legal thinkers undermines the public's trust in the integrity of the court.
It could catch up with them all.