BY PATSY BRUMFIELD
Famed novelist John Grisham knows plenty about courtrooms and judges. In addition to writing about them, he’s a former Mississippi practicing attorney and state legislator.
He also worries about the integrity of a judicial system when it takes so much money to get elected and stay elected.
He may find supporters and naysayers in any suggestion of Mississippi changing or keeping the way it selects judges.
“I would love to see us go to a system where the judges are screened to make sure they are qualified, and that they are good judges,” Grisham recently told the Daily Journal during a trip through Northeast Mississippi.
He suggested their appointment by the governor or Legislature. “Some different way … that beats what we’ve got.”
Among other suggestions for changing the system:
n Jim Kitchens, a longtime Jackson defense attorney and former district attorney, suggests that judges remain elected, but with contribution limits and in a way that makes it impossible for candidates to know where the money comes from. That way, nobody’s beholden to anybody else.
“Almost everyone agrees that it’s undesirable and unseemly for lawyers to practice before judges to whose campaigns they’ve contributed,” said Kitchens. “The same thing applies to non-lawyer litigants. It isn’t workable for a judge to recuse himself every time one of his or her contributors shows up in court.”
He suggests a “blind” campaign contribution system that might work like this:
A judicial campaign office would be created, perhaps through the Mississippi Bar Association. If you want to contribute to a judicial candidate’s campaign, you send a check to the office, designating what campaign it is for. The judicial campaign office deposits that check into a central fund, then the office mails a check in your amount to your chosen campaign, noting an anonymous contribution.
n State Sen. Gray Tollison of Oxford wants to clean up the state’s judicial reputation by appointing appellate judges rather than electing them. He introduced legislation to that end, saying the change would rid the state of the appearance of impropriety.
His legislative colleagues weren’t ready for the change – all three of his bills died this session.
n State Supreme Court Chief Justice Smith suggested the state revise its system of choosing Supreme Court and Court of Appeals judges. Instead of those positions being elected, Smith proposed that each appellate judge be appointed for a six-year term and then go through a retention election for a second term.