Daily Journal

Mississippi’s new Court of Appeals, which will start work in January, was designed to quash the swelling tide of cases inundating the state’s Supreme Court.

But already state officials are worried the new structure offers too little, too late.

If current law holds, Mississippians will elect five judges to the new court in November, one from each of the state’s congressional districts.

“That’s not enough,” Supreme Court Chief Justice Armis Hawkins said last week at a Mississippi Press Association convention in Tupelo.

Hawkins’ position was echoed by Supreme Court Magistrate John Fraiser, whose own job was created several years ago in a similar bid to reduce the backlog. The magistrates analyze several hundred cases a year, but that barely lets the court tread water, Fraiser said.

Hawkins conceded that realistically he can review about 40 appeals a year if he gives each the time it deserves. Under the current caseload he’s handling 80 or more.

Still the logjam grows. Records show that in 1993, the Supreme Court decided 497 appeals and dismissed 259. But 1,182 cases were filed that year. And it has been that way for years.

When it authorized the Court of Appeals in 1993, the Legislature didn’t foresee the state’s current budget bankroll. To cut costs, it trimmed the proposed 10-member panel to five.

Lawmakers belatedly sought to pump up the numbers this year, but lumped appeals court membership into its general court reform bill rather than approving a separate amendment. The reform bill is currently snagged in a preclearance dispute in the U.S. Justice Department.

But whether the new court has five members or 10, its duties, and its statutory mandate to speed the appeals process, will be the same. Only its ability to meet the mandate will be in question.

The new court will be, in essence, a creature of the Supreme Court. Its rules will be written by the high court and its administrative needs will be, as much as possible, met by Supreme Court personnel. The chief justice will appoint the lower court’s chief judge.

The appeals panel will be assigned cases by the high court, and it will have only nine months to render a decision. Once made, that decision will be final, unless one of the parties can convince at least four Supreme Court justices that the appeals court likely erred and a review is appropriate.

Under the Legislature’s hand, the new court has been granted only a year to relieve the Supreme Court of about three-fourths of its load.

The law provides that beginning Jan. 1, 1996 – a year after the appeals court starts work – the Supreme Court also will be required to render decisions within nine months of the filing of final appeals briefs. It now takes two-and-a-half to three years, and sometimes more, for the Supreme Court to reach a decision.

The law also precludes some appeals from being assigned to the lower court. Cases imposing the death penalty, utility rates, annexations, bond issues, election disputes, and the constitutionality of a statute must be retained by the higher court.

Normal terms for the new judges will be eight years, although some elected this November will serve fewer than that in order to create staggered terms.

Judges elected in the 1st Congressional District, comprising most of Northeast Mississippi, and the 4th District, in southwest Mississippi, will serve only four years. The 3rd District judge will serve six years, and the 2nd and 5th District judges will serve the full eight years.

Tuesday, 1st District voters will select between Tupelo attorney Charles “Charlie” Brett and Ackerman attorney Thomas A. Coleman for the Democratic nomination for the Nov. 8 general election.

In the 3rd District, voters will select a Republican nominee. Still in the race are Meridian attorney Greg Snowden and Brandon attorney Billy Bridges.

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