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Connecting the dots on judicial appointments

By By Suzanne Monk / managing editor
March 18, 2004
Gov. Haley Barbour has named Meridian attorney Charles Wright to the Judicial Appointments Advisory Committee. The 31-member committee will review all applications for judicial appointments and make recommendations in case of vacancies on the Mississippi Supreme Court, chancery and circuit courts, and county courts.
One of the committee's first jobs is likely to be reviewing candidates to finish the term of Chief Justice Edwin Pittman of the Mississippi Supreme Court, who retires on March 31.
Other attorneys appointed to the committee from The Meridian Star's readership area include Don Leland Kilgore of Philadelphia and Shannon Clark of Waynesboro.
Why don't you mind
your own mandate?
Speaking of judicial appointments, here's something that happened in February, while my attention was still on the newspaper's annual Profile edition.
On Feb. 10, Gov. Haley Barbour nominated two circuit court judges to the Commission on Judicial Performance. In due course, Chief Justice Edwin Pittman made the appointments by Supreme Court order.
Copies of the order were forwarded to the Commission on Judicial Performance, which had a negative reaction. On Feb. 17, commission members ordered Pittman to rescind the appointments within 10 days.
The chief justice, they said, had no business making appointments to the Commission on Judicial Performance. Why? Because he was the subject of a formal complaint pending before the commission.
Now, usually, complaints before the Commission on Judicial Performance are confidential. The panel said it was releasing the fact of the inquiry for the "limited purpose" of making its order public in accordance with state law.
The commission gave no hint as to what the complaint against Pittman might be.
On Feb. 25, the Mississippi Supreme Court said the commission had acted without authority and refused to rescind the appointments. Its order reads, in part, "The Judicial Performance Commission is hereby admonished and encouraged to review its authority and to give attention to its proper duties … as well as the commission's constitutional mandate."
Those duties, the justices said, are restricted to recommending suspensions and disciplinary actions against judges and waiving the commission's confidentiality requirements on occasion (like, presumably, this one).
It is unclear if that's the end of the story or if the Commission on Judicial Performance will "appeal" in some fashion. But, as a point of interest, County Court Judge Frank Coleman is a member and seconded the motion ordering Pittman to rescind the appointments.
Legacy of Chuck McRae
Speaking of the Mississippi Supreme Court, former Justice Chuck McRae may be out of office, but controversy surrounding his name lives on.
In August 2003, five justices filed a complaint before the Commission on Judicial Performance, claiming that McRae "improperly used his judicial office for the benefit of (the law firm of) Langston, Sweet &Freese."
McRae is Shane Langston's father-in-law. The five justices are Edwin Pittman, James Smith, William Waller, Kay Cobb and George Carlson.
Before McRae left office, Langston and other trial attorneys filed motions in case after case demanding those five justices recuse themselves. Greatly simplified, their point seemed to be that the five justices' impartiality couldn't be trusted.
In February, the Supreme Court justices declined to recuse themselves. They said the idea that they would harm Langston's clients or anybody else before the court because of real or imagined animosity toward their attorneys was without merit.
It was their second point, however, that was more interesting. The high court suggested that the demands for recusal had little to do with making sure all plaintiffs and defendants got a fair shake and more to do with aggressive attorneys seeking to influence rulings by forcing what they perceived as "unfriendly" justices out of the mix.
A case, they implied, of the tail wagging the dog.
Timing is everything
It takes five of the Supreme Court's nine justices to form a quorum. Had Langston's demands for recusal succeeded, it would have left only four. At least one place on the bench, or as many as five, would have been specially appointed.
Most of the recusal demands were filed in October 2003 and all were filed before 2004, when Ronnie Musgrove was still governor of Mississippi and would have been the person to make the special appointments.
But, they were not acted on until February, when Barbour was governor. At that point, the assault on the Supreme Court probably would have failed even if it had succeeded.
How "friendly," after all, could the trial attorneys who demanded recusals expect to find a governor who campaigned on tort reform?