Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – Chancery and circuit court districts in Northeast Mississippi are not expected to undergo major changes in judicial redistricting currently under way in the state Legislature.
As with legislative districts and other political subdivisions, such as county supervisors districts and city board districts, the districts for judges must be redrawn every 10 years to match population shifts found by the decennial census.
The Legislature is undertaking that task during the 2014 session so that the changes can be in effect for the judicial elections later this year.
Senate Judiciary A Chair Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg, said, “You are required to look at such factors as population and docket caseload” in undertaking the redistricting. His counterpart in the House, Judiciary A Chair Mark Baker, R-Brandon, said his goal is to have each chancery and circuit court judge representing about 60,000 people, though chancellors in general represent a larger population than do circuit judges.
Currently, there are 53 circuit judges across the state in 22 districts and 49 chancellors in 20 districts. Circuit judges hear felony criminal cases and civil cases – often in front of a jury. Chancellors hear domestic matters, such as issues surrounding divorce and child custody and matters of equity.
“Election districts for judges do not have to be as close in population as districts for legislators,” said Rep. Tommy Reynolds, D-Water Valley, who has been working on redistricting issues in the Legislature for years. “…There has to be a rational basis for what is being done, but you have wide latitude as far as the population.”
Reynolds said that is the reason there apparently will not be any effort to redraw the three Supreme Court districts or the five Court of Appeals districts this year,
Legislation that has passed the House would add eight new judges, four each for the chancery and for the circuit court bench. It also would add one district attorney for a new circuit court district that would consist of Madison County. Rankin and Madison currently comprise one circuit court district, but the legislation proposes to split each of the two fast-growing counties into its own district.
In addition, the House legislation adds 19 assistant district attorneys across the state, including one for the 1st District in Northeast Mississippi and one the 16th District, which includes Clay and Oktibbeha counties.
The only other change in Northeast Mississippi would be 14th Chancery Court District that includes Chickasaw, Clay and Oktibbeha counties. The three judges in the district are elected from subdistricts. Under the House plan, some of the precincts in the three subdistricts would be changed.
Northeast Mississippi legislators said they have heard no concerns from judges in the area about the need for additional judges.
Plus, Rep. Nick Bain, D-Corinth, said, “as a practicing attorney in the area I think there is ample opportunity to have access to our judges.”
Rep. Jim Beckett, R-Bruce said, “We got an extra judge not long ago. I am satisfied with our number of judges. I wish there were less counties in the district, but we have enough judges.”
Over in the Senate, legislation has not been passed to increase the number of judges, though Hopson conceded there is probably the need for some additional judges throughout the state. He predicted those issues will be decided late in the session when House and Senate leaders meet in a conference committee to hammer out a compromise.
If the House plan were to become law, the eight additional judges, one new district attorney and 17 new assistant district attorneys would cost the state an additional $4.6 million per year, according to information compiled by Baker. He pointed out, though, that the cost for the new judges and district attorney would be cut in half for the first year.
Judicial elections are slated in November. The House legislation contemplates the new judges being elected in November and taking office in January, midway through the fiscal year, thus cutting the costs of the first year in half. The new assistant district attorneys could be hired after July 1, at the start of the fiscal year.
The House legislation also moves the qualifying deadline for candidates running for the judicial posts from May to September. The redistricting is not expected to be approved by the Legislature until April, meaning a May qualifying deadline would not give people much time to decide to run for the judicial posts.
NORTHEAST MISSISSIPPI JUDICIAL DISTRICTS
Alcorn, Tishomingo, Prentiss, Pontotoc, Lee, Itawamba and Monroe counties
Thomas Gardner III of Tupelo
Paul Funderburk of Tupelo
Jim Pounds of Booneville
James Roberts Jr. of Pontotoc
Benton, Calhoun, Chickasaw, Lafayette, Marshall, Tippah and Union counties
Andrew Howorth of Oxford
John Gregory of Okolona
Robert Elliott of Ripley
Clay, Oktibbeha, Lowndes, Noxubee counties
Lee Howard of Starkville
James Kitchens of Columbus
Lee Coleman of West Pont
Alcorn, Itawamba, Lee, Monroe, Pontotoc, Prentiss, Tishomingo and Union counties
Jacqueline Mask of Tupelo
Michael Malski of Amory
Talmadge Littlejohn of New Albany
John Hatcher of Booneville
Chickasaw, Clay, Oktibbeha, Lowndes, Noxubee, and Webster counties
Dorothy Colom of Columbus
Kenneth Burns of Okolona
H.J. Davidson Jr. of Columbus
Benton, Calhoun, Lafayette, Marshall and Tippah counties
Glen Alderson of Oxford
Robert Q. Whitwell of Oxford