Uncle Bennie weighed in on the public fight between Hinds County Circuit Judge Jeff Weill and the Hinds County Public Defender's Office. Judge Weill held Hinds County Public Defenders Michelle Purvis and Greg Spore in contempt of court last week. Purvis and her employees packed the courtroom and then held a rally outside the courthouse in front of the media. Uncle Bennie asked the Justice Department to investigate. This drama will probably continue for quite some time. However, there is a case that provides a good look at both sides of the dispute.
A Hinds County Grand Jury indicted Victor Austin for domestic violence on November 20, 2014. The indictment accuses him of trying to strangle the mother of his child on September 2, 2014. He was arraigned December 17, 2014. Judge Weill appointed attorney Clayton Lockhart to represent Austin. Mr. Lockhart has practiced law for nearly twenty years but does not work for the public defender. However, the docket in the court file states that both Mr. Lockhart and public defender Alison Kelly represent Austin as she asserted that she was representing Austin. At this point, it seems simpler to publish the relevant documents in the file and a synopsis of each one filed in chronological order.
Ms. Purvis filed a motion for recusal on January 20, 2015. She makes the following arguments in her motion:
*Judge Weill was appointing attorneys to represent defendants even though lower courts had allegedly appointed the public defender to handle the representation of said defendants.
*Judge Weill made disparaging remarks about the public defender in a letter to the Hinds County Board of Supervisors. The letter notified the board he would appoint private lawyers to represent defendants.
*Judge Weill did not recuse the public defender and appointed the private lawyers where no conflict existed.
*Judge Weill held no hearing on disqualifying the public defender nor did he show cause. Ms. Purvis argues this is contrary to the law.
*The legal relationship is between the defendant and the attorney and not "between the defendant and the court."
*The case should be transferred to Senior Ciruit Judge Tomie Green for reassignment.
*The court appoints counsel if defendant is indigent.
*Ms. Kelly is (allegedly) engaged in an unauthorized practice of law while working as a full-time public defender. The law forbids such work while employed as a public defender or prosecutor on a full-time basis. She has a private law practice registered to her home in Reunion. He claims county employees must live in Hinds County.
*Ms. Kelly is the public defender assigned to his courtroom and acts as co-counsel for every indigent defendant even if the case is assigned to another public defender.
*Judge Weill reports alleged "multiple violations" of the Mississippi Rules of Professional Conduct for lawyers by Ms. Kelly.
*Ms. Kelly is allegedly engaged in the unauthorized practice of law.
*Judge Weill made similar complaints in an earlier letter and Ms. Purvis has done nothing about the "problem."
*Ms. Kelly allegedly "impermissibly conferred with a state's witness during a short court recess which interrupted his trial testimony. Her explanation to the court was that she had a "momentary lapse of whatever" (No Pink Floyd jokes, please.) when she told the witness "I'm sorry I just - I don't mean to be a bitch, I have a job to do. I'm just trying to save Mario's life."
*Ms Kelly quoted "exclusively from one appellate case" to support her position in a motion. However, the did not tell the court that the Court of Appeals decision was overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court on the "very issue cited by Ms. Kelly's motion." Judge Weill called it a "misleading litigation practice." Such action is allegedly unethical in Judge Weill's opinion.
*Ms. Purvis and Ms. Kelly ask Judge Weill to halt the proceedings and hold a hearing on the motion to recuse.
*The court found "upon inquiry" that Austin was indigent and deserved appointed counsel.
*The court appointed Clayton Lockhart to represent Austin. Mr. Lockhart is the only attorney appointed by the court to represent Austin. The Circuit Clerk's docket sheet "incorrectly lists Ms. Kelly" as one of the lead attorneys.
*A review of the electronic docket sheet in MEC shows that no one "since indictment" has been appointed to represent the defendant "nor does it show that Ms. Kelly has filed a formal entry of appearance."
*The court is "unaware" of any proceeding action concerning the case that may or m ay not have occurred at the municipal or county court level (initial appearances, preliminary hearings, bond status hearings.*).
*The court thus only sees in the file an indictment and capias ( I can testify to this practice through experience. The first documents in the vast majority of the court files I have examined are the indictment and the capias.)
*The circuit judge is thus provided hardly any information at arraignment if the defendant was found indigent by a lower court. Thus the court follows the law in appointing counsel after determining indigence.
*The court appoints the public defender if defendant is indigent and orders the public defender to submit an entry of appearance if Ms. Harris "delegates" said representation to an assistant public defender.
*Prior practices by the public defender made it "impossible" for the court to determine which public defender was assigned to a defendant and thus "made effective docket management impossible."
*Ms. Kelly and another public defender, Jamiel Wiggins, would "work on the cases of their own choosing and in matters where the other attorney was designated as the attorney of record."
*One public defender told the court administrator that the Judge's practice of assigning a specific public defender was "not binding" and that the HCPDO would assign an attorney after arraignment. She told the administrator to email the Public Defender's office to learn who the assigned public defender was.
*The administrator complied with this demand but "often did not receive the necessary information." The information that was sent was often "incomplete or confusing." The court stated such "incomplete and inaccurate" information made it hard to "communicate with parties" about their cases.
*Public Defender Mike Henry asked the court to stop assigning cases to specific public defenders. Judge Weill did so but required the assistant public defenders file an entry of appearance so the court would know who actually represented the defenant.
*Ms. Purvis changed her policy in September 2014. She would only allow public defenders to represent defendants if the public defender was appointed by Judge Weill before arraignment.
*Ms. Kelly "filed two motions" on behalf of Austin several weeks after the appointment of Mr. Lockhart.
*The letter to Ms. Purvis was marked "confidential". Ms. Purvis and Ms. Kelly included the letter in the motion for recusal despite this designation.
*"The HCPDO has refused to participate in the Court's arraignment process since September 15."
*Ms. Kelly's motion for clarification was the first time the court was notified that anyone had represented the defendant in lower court. "No portion" of any proceedings in the municipal or county courts are a part of the 'record in the case' in circuit court."
*All counsel but Clayton Lockhart are formally removed from the case.
*Ms. Kelly was not court-appointed counsel for Austin and thus lacked any standing to file motion for recusal.
*"Ms. Kelly's repeated refusal to comply with the rules of court and the rules of her employment indicates that she is more concerned with furthering her personal interests over the interest of her clients." Gentlemen, I think war has been declared.
*I think this might be the crux of the whole problem. The Judge gets the indictment and capias. That is all that he sees in the file. A lower court may appoint a public defender but said appointments are not in the file per se. Thus the public defender appears in court to represent the defendant but the judge has no order or formal entry of appearance by the public defender. Question for the lawyers: Could they both be right?
Page 2: Motion for recusal
Page 7: Judge Weill letter to Hinds County Board of Supervisors
Page 9: Judge Weill letter to Michelle Purvis
Page 10: motion for stay of proceedings and request for hearing by Ms. Purvis
Page 15: Opinion & order denying motion for recusal and motion for clarification on representation
Page 44: Docket
Page 47: Emails
Page 52: Motion for reconsideration
Page 58: Order denying motion