Federal judge won't dismiss suit against jurist

By The Associated Press

JACKSON — A federal judge has refused to throw out a lawsuit against a sitting judge accused of knowingly making false claims to authorities.

James Jennings Jr. of Mendenhall filed suit against Hinds County Judge Houston Patton and former Hinds County District Attorney Ed Peters in 2008.

U.S. District Judge Tom Lee last week rejected Patton’s assertion that as a judge he could not be held liable. Patton, 74, has been a county court judge since 1990.

The lawsuit revolves around a 1997 incident in which Patton accused Jennings and Jennings’ attorney, J. Keith Shelton, of trying to bribe him. Jennings and Shelton were indicted but never tried. The charges eventually were dismissed.

Jennings had filed a complaint against Patton with the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance, the state’s watchdog group for judges. Patton told authorities Shelton and Jennings offered to drop Jennings’ complaint for $25,000.

Both Patton and Peters had filed motions asking that Jennings’ lawsuit be dismissed.

Jennings alleges that after Shelton approached Patton to discuss settling a potential wrongful imprisonment suit against the judge, Patton contacted the district attorney’s office and falsely reported Shelton and Jennings were attempting to bribe him, according to the suit.

“In the court’s opinion, based on plaintiff’s version of the facts, no reasonable argument can be made that Patton’s alleged acts of making false statements to law enforcement and withholding material and exculpatory information to bring about the criminal prosecution of two innocent men are judicial or adjudicative acts,” Lee wrote in the 14-page ruling.

Lee agreed to throw out the claim against Peters because he said prosecutors are immune from liability for acts associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process — such as initiating prosecutions, presenting the state’s case and pursuing a criminal prosecution.

Reached Thursday about Lee’s ruling, Patton said, “It’s still in litigation. I have no comment on it.”

Jennings declined to comment Sunday night, and his attorney, Victor Fleitas of Tupelo, didn’t immediately respond to a message left on his office voicemail Sunday.

Click video to hear audio