Mississippi lawyers debate free legal service

JACKSON — The Mississippi Supreme Court has the authority it needs to require attorneys to provide free legal services to the poor, a former chief justice says.

The state Supreme Court is considering a proposal to require lawyers to provide at least 20 hours of free service a year to the poor in civil cases. It is taking comment through Oct. 1.

The Clarion-Ledger reports that some lawyers have criticized the proposal and others have questioned whether it is constitutional.

If such a proposal is adopted, Mississippi would become the first state to mandate free service to the poor.

“I believe without a question the rule proposed would be constitutional,” former Chief Justice Ed Pittman said this past week during a panel discussion in Jackson.

Attorney Mark Garriga, a former lawmaker and ex-chief of staff to Gov. Kirk Fordice, said the proposal would let attorneys avoid the 20 hours by paying $500 a year that would go toward funding programs to help provide access to justice to the poor.

“It’s nothing more than a tax on 6,000 people (lawyers),” Garriga said.

Garriga said the judicial branch has no authority to impose a tax.

There is no debate on the need for legal service to the poor; the question is whether it should be mandatory.

Rodger Wilder, an attorney and member of the Access to Justice Commission, said about half of the state’s lawyers are providing 46 hours of free service a year. Wilder said not enough lawyers are participating.

He thinks the state Supreme Court has authority to impose such a rule, but he is unsure if it would help or hurt.

The Associated Press