Business booming in courts closest to the people

TUPELO – The proverbial rubber meets the road in Mississippi’s 82 justice courts.
On any given day, the 197 elected justice court judges hear and decide local issues – from bad debts and domestic disputes to felony arraignments.
“We’re like a gate,” said Rickey Thompson, one of Lee County’s newest justice court judges. “This is probably the first court that anybody’s ever going to come to.”
His counterpart, Sadie Holland, agrees. “This is basically the people’s court,” she said.
Northeast Mississippi’s 16 counties have 36 of these judges. The posts will be up for election during the 2011 statewide voting.
Justice court judges are the only judicial officials who still run with a political party designation.
They need only a high school education or a GED to qualify to run for office, and then the voters decide by a geographical district who will sit in judgment on their cases.
Lee County’s Justice Court does business out of a nondescript brick building below a towering communication structure on North Broadway, conveniently across the street from numerous attorneys’ offices.
When court’s in session, twice a day Monday through Thursday, the courtrooms are packed and the parking spaces scarce.
Presiding across the work week are the four judges: Pat Carr, John H. Sheffield, Holland and Thompson. They also handle cases in the county’s municipal courts outside Tupelo.
In 2009, the court handled 6,952 civil cases and 8,522 criminal cases, compared with 2008’s 7,333 civil cases and 10,150 criminal cases.
Last week, Lee County’s judges talked about changes they’d seen improve the court over the years, as well as personal observations
Sheffield said he’s especially proud of the Victims Impact Panel, which brings together DUI offenders with the families of DUI victims.
“People who drink and drive can come to a meeting about how one driver affected a whole family,” he noted. “Only the hardest of hearts isn’t affected by what they say.”
Carr said things have really changed at justice court in the past 20 years.
“When I first came in, if an officer said anything about drugs, I thought he was talking about aspirins,” he recalled. “Drugs were new to us. Now, the problem has really grown.”
But it’s always been a busy place, Carr said, citing one day in 1998 when each of the then-three justice court judges handled more than 300 cases.
Thompson is especially proud of a drug court he’s begun, although it’s still a little controversial with some of his colleagues, who have said they weren’t consulted.
“It’s about improvement, about education,” Thompson explained. “What people do can affect their record forever.”
He said the drug court offers a program to help users get help, for education about consequences and for mentoring and accountability.
Carr said that one important aspect of justice court is to give small businesspeople a place to begin a legal process to recover unpaid bills.
Other local court innovations include a probation system that allows some defendants a pay system to keep themselves out of jail; a work center to work off fines; driving schools for teens and adults to work off speeding tickets; an expungement program to clean up records in some misdemeanor cases; and a public defender for people who need an attorney but can’t afford one.
Holland said she thinks the Lee County system runs well and may be one of the state’s best.
Justice courts began in 1976, the year after the Mississippi Legislature changed the fee-paid justice of the peace system to one with set salaries and mandatory training.
The move was in reaction to years of public criticism that the JP system was fraught with the potential for corruption because the more people who were found guilty and paid fines, the more money the judges made.
Today, justice court judges are paid salaries based on their county’s population – from $18,000 to $55,559 a year.
Lee County’s salary is $46,451.
“This is the place where the average person can come in and defend themselves,” explained Sheffield. “Even the weak can prevail over the strong.”
Periodically, justice court judges are reprimanded when public complaints prove valid to the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance.
The commission filed seven judicial discipline cases before the Mississippi Supreme Court in 2008, and five in 2009.
Cindy Davis, director of the Mississippi Judicial College, says perhaps 16 justice court judges in Mississippi have law degrees.
But Lee’s judges say good people with common sense make just as good judges as lawyers here, although they admit other counties may suffer from judges with less ability.
The law degree “is not necessary,” Thompson said. “If you take the time to educate yourself, you still learn the law, just like attorneys.”
The Mississippi Judicial College was founded in 1970 at the University of Mississippi Law Center. It was the first full-time state judicial education program in the nation.
Every new justice court judge must complete MJC’s initial program. After that, annual training is required. Starting in December 2011, they must pass a competency exam.
Davis said in-depth training also is available on subjects that interest the judges. They also can call MJC when specific questions arise.
As for changes, Sheffield said he’d like to see the Legislature update or eliminate some laws on the books, like hitching horses to rails.
“Did you know it’s illegal to spit on the highway?” Carr added.
But life as a justice court judge isn’t always about people’s troubles.
Carr remembered the time he officiated at the double-wedding of a race-car driver and his mother.
“I married the two couples at the race track, up in the tower over the PA system,” he said, noting it may have been the biggest wedding crowd he’s ever had.
As for Sheffield, he said a Halloween-theme wedding was his most memorable with a big bonfire and guests in costume.
He said he declined the request to help tie the knot while jumping out of an airplane.
He and Carr also recalled the time a man walked and hitchhiked from Arkansas to get to his court appearance, but wound up in the hospital.
“A nurse called and said he’d collapsed,” Sheffield said. “Of course, I said he could have a continuance.”

Contact Patsy R. Brumfield at (662) 678-1596 or patsy.brumfield@djournal.com.

What is justice court?
– Mississippi has 82 justice courts with 197 judges. The court has 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.
The court also may conduct bond hearings and some preliminary hearings in felony criminal cases, and issue search warrants.
Appeals go to circuit or chancery court, then to the Mississippi Supreme Court.

NEMS justice court judges
• ALCORN – Steve Little, Jimmy McGee
• BENTON – James Bonnell Mason, Gary McBride
• CALHOUN – Mark Ferguson, Jimmy Vance
• CHICKASAW – Garry Turner, Judy Posey
• CLAY – Thomas G. Hampton, Joe M. Taggart
• ITAWAMBA – Gerald Wallace, Wiley Lance Bean
• LAFAYETTE – Mickey Avent, Frances E. Gordon, Johnny Wayne McLarty
• LEE – Pat Carr, John H. Sheffield, Sadie M. Holland, Rickey W. Thompson
• MARSHALL – Eugene D. Brown Jr., Ernest Cunningham
• MONROE – Kevin Crook, Robert Earl Fowlkes, Adrian McIntosh Haynes
• OKTIBBEHA – William A. Boykin, W. Bernard Crump
• PONTOTOC – David A. Hall, Phillip Weeks
• PRENTISS – Debra Moore, Billy Sartin
• TIPPAH – Jerome Brown, Kevin Hall
• TISHOMINGO – Billy Glover Jr., Donny Joe Sparks
• UNION – Ronnie Rakestraw, Christopher Childers

Justice court judges
• Must be qualified elector in county two years before the next election
• Elected every four years by the voters, who live in the district
• Earns annual salary $18,000 to $55,559, depending on county population
• Must have high school diploma or GED
• Must complete training and education, as well as pass a minimum competency exam, within six months of beginning the term of office
• Must complete continuing education in succeeding terms
• Number per county determined by population

Lee County justice court judges
n Annual salary – $46,451

LEE JUSTICE COURT
• Office – 331 N. Broadway St.
• Contact – (662) 841-9014
• In session – Monday-Thursday, 9 a.m., 1:30 p.m.

Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal