Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Sid Salter Waxes on Justice Court Judges

If you need a wise, reasonable soul to adjudicate a drunken misdemeanor bar fight, sort out right from wrong in a traffic ticket, or even to officiate at a wedding, the average Mississippi justice court judge can be your huckleberry.


In my journalism career, I met and came to respect many such judges. Their service to their communities and the people who elected them is invaluable. In my personal life as a guy who spent a lot of days behind the wheel on Mississippi roads, I also met a number of those judges as a guilty lead-foot driver holding a well-deserved speeding ticket from the Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol.

Those reflections lead us to the recent Lee County case that brought Lee County First District Justice Court Judge Chuck Hopkins into the orbit of City Attorney Ben Logan of the City of Tupelo. Seems that while driving home from a holiday party on Dec. 7, 2018, Logan was stopped at a Highway Patrol safety checkpoint that ultimately resulted in drunk driving charges against Logan.

With Logan a public figure by virtue of his city attorney job, the case generated controversy and media attention. But fast forward to July 11, when Judge Hopkins dismissed the charges against Logan by ruling that the Highway Patrol checkpoint was unconstitutional. Hopkins said there was no evidence that the state troopers conducting the checkpoint had the advance approval of their superiors.

Hopkins is a third-generation justice court judge, following his father and grandfather in the role. He’s a graduate of Baldwyn High School and attended Northwest Community College and the Mississippi Judicial College at the University of Mississippi. He’s in the construction and real estate development business, but he’s not an attorney.

The justice court judge’s decision brought swift and brutal criticism from Mississippi Commissioner of Public Safety Marshall Fisher, who said Hopkins “judge “had neither the law nor the facts on his side when he dismissed the case.”

Fisher offered the opinion that the decision was the province of local Lee County politics rather than a just decision involving the facts of the case and the law.

More to the point in this instance and others, the question is begged about the fact that the legal training for Mississippi justice court judges really isn’t sufficient to guarantee that their ability to rule on matters of constitutionality is sufficient for the task.

The Hopkins ruling begs the harder question of whether all DUI suspects in his court prior to Logan received the same level of constitutional review of their DUI charge as did Logan?

Mississippi provides that justice court judges “have jurisdiction over small claims civil cases involving amounts of $3,500 or less, misdemeanor criminal cases and any traffic offense that occurs outside a municipality. Justice court judges may conduct bond hearings and preliminary hearings in felony criminal cases and may issue search warrants.”

But the only qualifications for that judicial authority is that the judge be a qualified elector, a resident of the county two years preceding the day of election, a high school graduate or its equivalent, and completion of a course of training required by law within six months of the beginning of the term of office.

Judicial rulings on fairly complex, thorny matters of Fourth Amendment and Sixth Amendment constitutional issues like probably cause, individualized suspicion simply require more legal education in order to avoid the kind of credibility debate that ensured after the Lee County Justice Court ruling.

This isn’t an attack on justice court judges. Far from it. But we have a 19th century system that loses credibility when skilled lawyers argue cases in front of judges not afforded sufficient legal training to decipher and weigh the arguments put before them.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at sidsalter@sidsalter.com.

26 comments:

Anonymous said...

I've practiced law for 40 years and am familiar with the Justice Court system. While some justice court judges are attorneys, the vast majority are not. For a justice court judge to throw out this case based on constitutionality is ridiculous. This highlights something that has been apparent for many years--the justice court system in today's world is an antique whose time has passed. The problem lies with the legislature. The justice court lobby is so powerful that you probably won't find one legislator, much less a majority, to do the right thing and replace justice courts with county courts in every county.

Anonymous said...

Who are these mysterious "skilled lawyers" traveling the roads of Mississippi arguing all these cases in all the justice courts in the state? I mean, Mississippi probably has more justice courts than "skilled lawyers." And just how many cases involving (reasonably-asserted) Constitutional implications arise in those courts? In any case, a defendant is entitled to a _fair_ trial, not a "perfect" one.

Anonymous said...

I can think of several lawyers that serve as judges, that are routinely overturned on appeal. If the community doesn't like the way the judge conducts his or her court, then the change can be made at the ballot box. Personally I think Marshall Fisher can take a long walk off a short pier... How many times has DPS been caught trying to cover something up? On this blog? In the last 5 years?

There are several ways to correct judicial misconduct that doesn't require being a lawyer. However requiring justice court judges to be attorneys would be a great benefit to all the unemployed law school graduates.

Anonymous said...

Yes but they are the perfect remnant of a plantation system which is still the basis of Mississippi society to this day. An old plantation boss, with or without formal education, given a legal authority to "keep the county in line". When dealing with racial and economic position in Mississippi, formal education could not be an impediment. Someone who could put the official stamp of state sanction on rash and often unjust local practices kept the poor underclass "in their place" and were a main cog in the plantation machine. Colonel Reb would have been at least a justice court judge or have one on his payroll. Now we have a new generation of plantation bosses who love the chance to "be a judge". It is a tired ridiculous system that has outlived it's usefulness, but effectively reminds us that this is still Mississippi.

Anonymous said...

Add plumber and building inspector to the list...in Tunica County, one of the Justice Court Judges was a plumber by trade and moonlighted as a building inspector.

Anonymous said...

Judges should be lawyers. Period. There’s too much at stake, even in misdemeanor cases, to leave these decisions in untrained hands. I know some not great attorney judges too, but for the most part the quality of judges would improve if they were required to be attorneys.

Anonymous said...

As soon as Justice Court judges are required to be attorneys you would start hearing a bunch of whining about how we need to pay them a lot more so that these important people will be willing to serve. Anyone who isn't crooked and is reasonably intelligent should be able to handle the matters before any Justice Court. The complaints are almost always because a judge intentionally ignored the law to produce a desired outcome - not that they were too dumb to understand the law. Attorneys are just as likely to be willing to engage in a little home cooking as any other citizen willing to wear the robe.

Anonymous said...

Justice court should be called regular guy court. Just put a regular guy in there and let him make a reasonable decision. Of course it should not be elected. No judge should be elected.

Anonymous said...

Jurors should be lawyers. Period. There’s too much at stake, even in murder cases, to leave these decisions in untrained hands. I know some not great attorney jurors too, but for the most part the quality of jurors would improve if they were required to be attorneys.

Anonymous said...

So, if I'm to understand the logic posted at 10:24, we can't be having an adequate Justice Court system since, to reach that mark, we'd have to pay a commensurate salary.

People in black robes without a law degree are comparable to women in charge of classrooms who are not teachers. But we can insist on certificated and credentialed teachers because we'd be expected to pay for it. These classroom stand-ins are glorified Head Start baby sitters. Same is true of the JC system in this state. Yet these 'jurdges' parade around like they're some-baddy.

But...they attended most of a 2-day lecture up at Oxford. If they didn't cut out early to go shopping.

Anonymous said...

10:24 For generations the rural poor in Mississippi had to depend on the services of midwives to aid in childbirths because of inability to reach
(or pay) for a medical doctor. Some of these midwives had little or no formal education and functioned only because of necessity,trust, and tradition. Though MD's are still sparse in the rural areas the use of these midwives has declined to a rarity. Medical science, issues of liability, and ability to travel have moved us beyond those days. More importantly, the rural poor who may be just peons with no political importance can hire a very rich law firm to represent them on a contingent fee basis when they don't get basic child care. No more midwives. Justice Court is mainly the forum of the poor and those unable to secure legal representation. They can't afford to pay for justice so who cares if they must resort to some kangaroo Court and an untrained judge. Certainly not the Mississippi legislature. You don't see the rich and high powered lawyers fooling around in justice court. If these judges and their county were held to liability for their abuses...No more justice court. At least no more untrained judges.

Anonymous said...

11:22, I think you mean jurists, not jurors.

Anonymous said...

to the wiseass at 8:32...you sound like a cop wannabe. to answer your sarcastic question about "constitutional implications" , every criminal case has constitutional implications. all laid out in the 4th , 5th , and 6th amendment's which were written by men like jefferson, washington and adams. tell us more about how much smarter you are than those guys.

Anonymous said...

Justice courts allow the people to work out their own problems quickly and efficiently. Misdemeanors and civil things under $3500. Get attorneys involved in most of this stuff it's not worth the people's efforts because of the cost of settling things that can be settled by the law and a little common sense. When the system works and most of the time it does, it's the best system we have. That's why we have appeals and unfortunately it's why some attorney's are out of work. That's not the system's fault. You should have been an engineer.

Anonymous said...

@ 12:32... you sound like a history teacher wannabe with your sarcastic answer about, "....were written by men like jefferson, washington and adams." The 4th, 5th and 6th were written by Madison, as were the rest of the first 10. Just saying....

Anonymous said...

Hey 12:32, you sound like a history teacher wannabe! The first ten amendments to the constitution were all written by Madison. Not the first three Presidents. Just saying....

Anonymous said...

Yea let’s put the lawyers in charge. What could possibly go wrong??

Anonymous said...

I know of a Justice Of The Peace who answers the telephone at her home, "Judge...".

Anonymous said...

If you've watched a whole lot of Mayberry episodes, you know all you need to know about Justices O The Peace, I mean Justice Court Judges.

One minute they're weedin' the front flower bed, the next minute they turn around their desk name plate and it says JUDGE.

Anonymous said...

The Justice Court system is designed so two citizens can come together with a problem and a normal person help them find a solution to the problem. It does not take a lawyer to make a decision that will be useful in the area brought to the court. Lets face it, Lawyers are the problem with most everything to do in government. The ACLU Lawyers are the ones that took Prayer out of the schools and replaced it with mass shootings. They are good if you have to have one, but if you don't its best to avoid them at all costs. another thing-- Marshall Fisher is a decent man and is a great addition to the MHP!!!!

Anonymous said...

As the article states, I never really thought much about Justice Court and City Court judges, until I was the victim of a crime recently and now I am very interested in who the judges and prosecutors are!!!

Anonymous said...

8:32AM responding to the various replies -

It may (or may not) be also interesting to note that while Madison had what could be described in current terms as an excellent and thorough "Classics education," he had no formal legal education. In fact, while he was formally educated and extremely well-read in myriad subjects, he wrote on several occasions that he had no interest in or desire for a formal legal education or career, choosing instead to be a planter and businessman like his (male) ancestors.

If justice court judges were required to be lawyers, Madison, the man who actually wrote, defended and was the primary actor in having the "Bill of Rights" ratified could not adjudicate them. Curiously, based upon Madison's own writings, it is extremely likely that he would have not wanted to be a judge in any court nor thought himself suited to being a judge and would have supported the premise that all judges, including justice court, have a reasonable amount of formal legal education and experience.

Lastly, none of the "Founding Fathers" (or any of their contemporaries) had any prior education in US Constitutional (or US) law because, obviously, the Constitution (and the US) was created subsequent to whatever legal education they had previously received (basically, it would have been based upon English and European law, not the "new" Constitutional law). Put simply, there was no SCOTUS precedent prior to the Constitution because there had been no SCOTUS prior to the instrument which created it and the federal court system.

Anonymous said...

The Justice Court Judges also run a law office on the side, troubles me more.
The Circuit Courts in Jackson have great legal minds, lawyers all, how is that working out. I would prefer a Justice Court farmer any day over my case.
Least we forget, One can be on the Supreme Court without a law degree.
It would be a good idea to have term limits but hey that ain't going to happen.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps Courtney Rainey, the non attorney running for Justice Court Judge in Madison County and was just convicted for witness intimidation will become Madison County’s newest Justice Court Judge.

Anonymous said...

to 12:02 ...my what superior knowledge , dense prose and bullshit you put forth. hey big guy,,,,, everybody has to start somewhere , including the government of the united states. put simply, tell us something we dont already know.

Anonymous said...

The one thing that is missing from this debate is money. I believe that the Justice Court System in Mississippi make money, lots of money for those that live off of the taxpayers till. I seriously doubt that any of the eighty-two counties would support changing the parameters of this cash cow any time soon.

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