Federal court still adjusting to Pepper's absence

By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal

OXFORD – U.S. District Judge W. Allen Pepper Jr.’s sudden death six months ago still hurts, most immediately among his colleagues in Mississippi’s Northern District.
“We were absolutely unprepared for him to pass away,” admits Chief Judge Michael P. Mills, speaking in his Oxford office recently.
Mills means that personally and professionally.
Since Pepper’s death Jan. 24, activity in the court district – which stretches across 37 counties in the state’s northern half – accelerated into overdrive to compensate.
“First, there was the loss of Allen as a person,” Mills says, reflecting on the aftermath. “Then there was the caseload he was carrying.”
The chief judge says getting their arms around the reality of Pepper’s death has been difficult, but that with the help of everyone in the court district and effective computer programs, they’ve been able to manage doing what needed to be done.
Pepper of Cleveland was appointed to the district bench in 1999 by President Bill Clinton. At his death from a heart attack, Pepper was overseeing 248 civil cases and 73 criminal cases.
Mills and Judge Sharion Aycock in Aberdeen assumed the lion’s share of his cases but got help quickly.
“Our senior judges really came through and took on a bunch of cases,” Mills said of Neal B. Biggers Jr. and Glen H. Davidson.
Senior judges are former full-time federal judges who opt to continue to work but with lighter case loads, usually.
Mills said the magistrate judges, David Sanders, S. Allan Alexander and Jenny Virden, also were brought into the mix on new civil cases, where possible.
Longtime Cleveland attorney Kirkham Povall speaks for many of Pepper’s legal colleagues when he says the judge is missed, as a friend and as a jurist.
“You know, we didn’t have a full-time judge for a long time,” Povall says, referring to a gap from the late 1980s until Pepper’s appointment when then-Judge Lester Senter reportedly avoided the Clarksdale and Greenville benches and worked out of Oxford.
“With Allen’s death, now, here we are again,” he notes.
No talk of replacement
Appointment of Pepper’s replacement may be a long time coming.
A district judge can be appointed only by the president with U.S. Senate approval.
With partisanship at a fever pitch in Washington, political observers speculate it’s unlikely President Barack Obama could move a judicial nominee through the Senate vetting process toward a vote in this election-year.
Mills said he hasn’t heard any names mentioned as possible replacements for Pepper, a 26-year public defender before he came to the federal bench.
During his college years, Pepper was the roommate of Trent Lott, who rose to the post of U.S. Senate majority leader.
Pepper’s departure from the Greenville courthouse bench also affects the larger view of the district from the nation’s capital, where Congress makes decisions about facilities and appropriations.
If a jurisdiction, such as Pepper’s Delta Division, shows a sharp decline in activity, the community may not like Washington’s changes, as was done in 1996 when the Delta Division’s courthouse in Clarksdale was closed.
“We have to keep the Mississippi Delta as a true division of the federal courts,” Mills said. “Its people and attorneys are entitled to a modern, fine courthouse.”
Today’s U.S. courthouse in Greenville is a tread-worn facility housed on the third floor of the post office.
Mills says he’s been pushing for years for a better courthouse, which he says he hopes will be funded some day. Tough budget times, he notes, may push that upgrade farther and farther down the line.
Other changes
Mills also seeks congressional help for what he considers another upgrade in a proposed re-alignment of the Northern District’s divisions by population and cases filed. The change would establish three divisions – Aberdeen, Oxford and Greenville – rather than the current East, West, Greenville and Delta.
Mills and others apparently have good reason to press for improvements and a new judge in Greenville.
In March, government documents showed that 60 federal court facilities in 29 states could be on the chopping block. Most of the courtrooms are in buildings that house other federal agencies including in post offices and many are located in remote areas.
The 60 sites being considered for closure, reportedly including Meridian, do not have a resident judge. Instead, judges based in larger cities travel to these smaller locations as needed.
For now, Magistrate Jane M. Virden is the only federal jurist working regularly in Greenville.
Mills notes he and Aycock travel there for cases, when needed. More often, they hear Delta cases in Oxford.
With the heavy load of civil cases there, Mills said he’s likely to return to Greenville a lot before a replacement arrives.
He also says some Southern District judges have taken over a few cases.
“But I think we can handle most of them,” he assesses of the Northern District bench.
He credits the district’s historic empowerment of its magistrates with enabling himself, Aycock, Biggers and Davidson to carry the extra load.
Are there any lessons learned after Pepper’s death, which shocked and surprised friends and colleagues?
“We will know better what to do next time,” Mills predicts.
For now, the Greenville court facility feels a little empty and lonelier without the courtly and collegial Pepper and his supporting staff, which played an important role in the workings of the court.
Two law clerks had to find new employment, his former judicial assistant now works with the court clerk’s office and his courtroom deputy will take retirement in July.
“The courtroom’s dark unless someone comes to sit for a case,” Povall says.
He laments the loss of staff, too, which he said has provided insight and continuity for the court’s operation.
“I know they’re all pulling their weight,” Povall said about the rest of the region’s federal judges and personnel.
But he feels the loss.
“He took his job seriously – he worked every day. He was firm, consistent and fair,” Povall said about Pepper. “He understood our area and its people and the dynamics. There are a lot of voices that want to be heard.”
Oxford defense attorney Christi R. McCoy, who’s represented numerous clients before Pepper, said she misses him “as a judge, a friend and a mentor.”
“His legacy will be the kindness and compassion he showed to any and everyone he encountered. And how he took so much time to help young lawyers find their way in their careers.”
patsy.brumfield@journalinc.com