Archived Story

Separation of power must continue

Published 12:08am Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Natchez Board of Aldermen, in council with the mayor, has the responsibility and authority to legislate policy and to adopt ordinances, codes and budgets for the governing of the City of Natchez. That responsibility includes the authority to amend existing codes and to amend the city charter, which established Natchez. The city charter created the elected position of municipal judge, and set forth his qualifications, duties and responsibilities. The board of aldermen certainly can amend the charter and make the municipal judge an appointed position.

The city charter grants the municipal judge jurisdiction over misdemeanor, ordinance, code and traffic violations, plus committing jurisdiction over felonies arising within the city limits. The municipal judge is further charged with responsibility to assess and collect all fines, costs and fees in these matters.  Monthly, the municipal court shall pay the State of Mississippi its mandatory state assessments, pay collected restitution to victims of crime and pay the balance of collections to the city general fund together with a monthly report. All collections and disbursements are made under regulations established by the Mississippi state auditor and subject to periodic audit, both announced and unannounced. The gross collection of the municipal court for the month of July 2013 was $65,706.38 — with $20,541.01 paid to the State of Mississippi, $4,962.67 paid to victims of crime and $40,121.92 net paid to the City of Natchez general fund by the municipal court.

The appointed office of municipal judge pro tem was also created by the city charter. The board of aldermen holds the power of appointment. The judge pro tem serves in the absence of the municipal judge and with the same qualifications, duties and authority. A judge pro tem has served in that position until 2004. I served as judge pro tem for 24 years until I was elected municipal judge in 2004. For budgetary reasons, the city left the pro tem position vacant from 2004 until 2012. In 2012, the board of aldermen appointed a new judge pro tem. Although there was some concern as to what the judge pro tem would do, the appointment was made without so much as a telephone call to the municipal judge to discuss the matter. It was well within their right to do so, but is that good business?

The aldermen, the mayor, the judge pro tem and the municipal judge all take the same oath of office. We all solemnly swear to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Mississippi and to obey the laws thereof. In addition, the conduct of the municipal judge is subject to responsibilities set forth by the judicial performance commission of the State of Mississippi. A Mississippi Supreme Court justice recently summarized the responsibility of “Being a Judge” when he said, “Do your job! Obey your Oath! Follow the Law!”

This responsibility often requires difficult decisions and the assessment of difficult fines and punishments. Sometimes the judge must tell other elected or appointed officials, “No, you cannot do that. It’s against the law.”

So a better question may be why do the board/mayor want to amend the position of the municipal judge at this time?

Is it because the municipal judge has told the mayor and board of aldermen, “No,” your code enforcement inspector may not go upon private property without consent, because that constitutes an illegal search and a violation of the U.S. Constitution and the Mississippi Constitution as described by the Mississippi Attorney General?

Is it because the municipal judge has told the mayor and board of aldermen, “No,” the environmental court that you established is illegal and in violation to the city charter? (At that time they said that an amendment to the charter would be too much trouble.)

Is it because the municipal judge has told the mayor and board of aldermen, “No,” your appointed judge pro tem may not operate from a separate office and collect fines before the board of aldermen and deposit them into a separate account?  (Per state auditor.)

Is it because the municipal judge has told an elected city official, “No,” you do not have the authority to “void” a traffic ticket that has already been issued.

Is it because the municipal judge had told an out-of-town defendant who appeared in municipal court, “No,” the secretary of an elected official does not have the authority to “take care of your ticket” even though you have a signed letter on city stationary to that effect?

Is it because the municipal judge will have to tell the mayor and the board of aldermen, “No,” you may not add the name of the mayor and the name of the city clerk as an authorized signatory for checks to be drawn on the general account of the municipal court? The reason is that the court account includes monies due to the State of Mississippi, and to victims of crime, with the balance to be paid by the municipal court directly to the city general fund. (Per State Auditor.)

Most of the Mississippi municipal judges are appointed by their municipal governing boards, not the mayor. Most of these appointed judges will also tell you that that power of appointment is their only job security. That makes it difficult for them if a mayor or a board member, “just calls to ask about their son’s possession sharge or Aunt Betty’s speeding ticket.”

For these and other reasons, the separation of powers is an important element of our local, state and national government. An independent judiciary, elected or appointed, is an important part of that formula. My telling other officials, “No,” may make others assume that I am being difficult or that I lack their vision for the City of Natchez. I do not see it that way. I will continue to, “Do my Job!”

 

Jim C. Blough is a municipal judge in the City of Natchez.