CATEGORY: Legislature



By Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – Legislation that would provide additional Circuit Court judges and prosecutors in Northeast Mississippi has now passed both chambers of the state Legislature.

Under one bill that passed both chambers Wednesday, the 1st District, which includes Tupelo, and the 16th District, which includes West Point, each would get a new judge.

The 1st District also would get three new assistant district attorneys, while the 16th District would get two. District 3, which includes the Oxford area, would not get a new judge, but would get two additional prosecutors.

The legislation, which includes 32 new prosecutors and three judges statewide, is designed to ease crowded criminal court dockets. But some legislators argued the docket in the 16th District was not that crowded.

The legislation now goes to the governor, who can sign it or reject it.

Complaints about new judge

The legislation did not pass the House of Representatives without a fight. Some members complained the 16th District does not have the caseload to warrant a third judge. They complained that the additional judge was being placed in the 16th District because Sen. Bennie Turner, D-West Point, is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“You are talking about pork-barrel politics at its best,” said Rep. Tom Cameron, R-Greenville. “We are putting another judge in there because the chairman happens to live in that district.”

Turner denied the charge. He pointed out District 11, which is in the Delta, and District 17, which is in northwest Mississippi, both have three judges and have fewer cases per year than does District 16.

District 16’s two judges hear 830 cases a year. District 11’s three judges hear 551 cases, and District 17’s three judges hear 741.

Turner also pointed out the Senate approved an additional judge for District 16, which consists of Clay, Lowndes, Noxubee and Oktibbeha counties, in 1994, but the House killed the proposal. In 1994, Turner was not chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, so the Senate had less of a reason to grant his wish of a third judge. He said the Senate approved it on its merit then and again this year.

In the House, Cameron and others had different reasoning. They said two judges were enough in the district. The two are only in court 99 days per year, they said.

Despite the vocal opposition, the plan creating the new judge posts passed the House of Representatives 81-40. It passed the Senate with only one dissenting vote.

Worked out in conference

The plan the House and Senate were voting on Wednesday was a conference report. Both chambers already had passed bills establishing new judges in the 16th, 1st and 8th earlier in the process with limited debate. The debate in the House on Wednesday came on the conference report, which was agreed upon by key House and Senate members appointed to work out differences between the two chambers’ legislation.

The new judge in the 16th will come from a subdistrict that has a predominantly black population.

The new judge in the 1st will be elected from the district at large. The district consists of Alcorn, Lee, Itawamba, Monroe, Tishomingo, Pontotoc and Prentiss counties.

The current judges in the 1st are Thomas Gardner, Frank Russell and Barry Ford.

“We need another judge,” Ford said. “The caseload is just astronomical.”

Under the bill, the 8th District also would get another judge.

Elections for the new judges are scheduled for this November.

Additional prosecutors

Another bill that has passed both chambers provides for the additional assistant district attorneys. Thirty-two will be added statewide at a cost of about $2 million annually.

The bill provides for District 1 to get two in July and another in January. The 3rd and 16th would get one additional prosecutor each in July and another one each in January.

The 3rd and 16th districts also would get another criminal investigator each to work with the district attorneys.

The prosecutors and investigators are needed, supporters said, to help ease the burdens on overworked district attorney staffs.

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