New training begins in '12 for state justice court judges

By EMILY LANE / The Natchez Democrat

NATCHEZ – Justice court judges in Mississippi elected next year will be required to spend more hours in a classroom to sit on the bench.
The Mississippi Legislature put together a task force in 2007 to examine the justice court system, which made several suggestions for changes. Many items included in the task force’s report were not acted on by the Legislature.
Lawmakers, however, did require more continuing studies and basic training for justice court judges at the suggestion of the task force.
Adams County Justice Court Judge Charlie Vess said adding more training is an important move toward better preparing judges across the state.
Vess said the responsibilities of justice court judges have been gradually expanding during the last 10 years, and he believes more educational requirements are necessary.
In addition, the jurisdictional limits for civil cases were recently increased from $2,500 to $3,500, expanding justice court’s jurisdiction in civil cases, which was suggested by the task force.
New laws, which will go into affect Jan. 1, 2012, require first-term justice court judges to take 80 hours of basic training and pass a competency exam from the Mississippi Judicial College of the University of Mississippi Law Center.
Starting in 2012, justice court judges will also be required to take 24 hours of annual continuing studies at the Mississippi Judicial College.
Currently, justice court judges have to complete only 32 hours of basic training courses and 18 hours of continuing education per year.
If the judges fail to complete the required training within eight months of beginning their term, the judge could forfeit his or her office.
While additional training is a step forward, Vess said the standard should be raised for general education requirements for justice court judges.
The legal education requirement for justice court judges is currently a high school diploma or GED.
The task force suggested a requirement of at least an associate’s degree from a two-year college to qualify to run for justice court judge. The task force also suggested allowing five years experience as a certified law enforcement officer, paralegal, court clerk, deputy clerk or court administrator to stand in lieu of a degree.
However, the Legislature did not change the law.
The task force also suggested allowing five years experience as a certified law enforcement officer, paralegal, court clerk, deputy clerk or court administrator to stand instead of a degree.
Despite the minimal educational requirements and often-low salaries of justice court judges, Vess said there has been a recent movement toward more educated people presiding over justice court rooms.
Mississippi Judicial College Director Cynthia Davis said 22 justice court judges are licensed attorneys in the state.
The Legislature also didn’t act on a task force recommendation that justice court elections be nonpartisan, meaning the candidates run without party affiliation.
Other judges – including those on the Mississippi Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, and chancery and circuit – run in nonpartisan elections.
Currently, justice court elections are held at the same time as the election for governor and other statewide and county officials. The next election is in 2011.
“Judges shouldn’t be caught up in that type of political partisan politics,” Vess said.
Justice courts have jurisdiction over small claims civil cases, misdemeanor criminal cases and any traffic offense that occurs outside a municipality.