Bill for three justice court districts dies in conference panel

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 1, 2003

NATCHEZ &045; A bill that would allow Adams County to keep all three of its justice court judge and constable seats is dead, unless a resolution passes the Legislature to extend the deadline for a conference committee to review it.

Senate Bill 2798 did not make it out of a House-Senate conference committee by the Monday deadline. Action on the resolution would need to taken as soon as possible, since the Legislature will adjourn Sunday.

Adams County’s population dropped from 35,356 in 1990 to 34,340 in 2000. Under state law, counties with fewer than 35,000 people can only have two justice court judges and two constables.

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An amendment to the bill would provide that the number of justice court judges and constables in any county would not be reduced as a result of a population loss based on the 2000 Census.

While having two judges instead of three would save more than $28,000 in salary, some, including Judge Charlie Vess, have said three judges are needed to handle more than 5,000 cases a year.

And candidates who qualified to run for justice court judge and constable in the Southeastern District prior to the March 1 qualifying deadline just want to know what their next moves should be.

&uot;I haven’t been given any guidance,&uot; said judge candidate Audrey Minor Bailey, who works as a clerk in justice court. &uot;It’s very unfair to go ahead and say you’re in one district and have such an uproar going on.

&uot;And because I work here, I might not want to go against judges that are already here,&uot; she said.

Bailey noted that candidates who qualified in the Southeastern District might be forced to run in the Northern or Southern districts. Those districts are already represented by Judge Mary Lee Toles and Vess, respectively.

Actually, that action must be taken by Southeastern District candidates remains to be seen, said David Blount, spokesman for the Mississippi Secretary of State’s Office.

&uot;I’ll need to do some research on that one,&uot; Blount said Tuesday. &uot;I’ve never come across that (kind of situation) before.&uot;

Robert Sullivan, who qualified to run for justice court judge for the Southeastern District, said he was &uot;disappointed but not surprised&uot; by the apparent failure of the bill.

Sullivan said he has still not decided whether he will still run, given Tuesday’s news.

Southeastern District constable candidate Randy Freeman said he will run regardless of the news.

Justice court judge candidate Cane Callon said he would wait until he heard more from the Secretary of State’s Office before making any comments. Other candidates could not be reached late Tuesday.

But both Freeman and Sullivan said they wish county supervisors had taken more prompt action to insure that Adams County kept three districts.

&uot;I brought it up from the very beginning when the lost population was brought to the board’s attention,&uot; said supervisors Vice President Darryl Grennell. &uot;I was one of the first that said we needed to submit a local and private bill to maintain three districts.&uot;

At that time, in 2001, supervisors were assured by state Sen. Bob Dearing, D-Natchez, that the county would not lose a district, Grennell said.

In January, Dearing said he only told supervisors that the change would not affect them immediately because 2001 was not an election year.

Supervisors voted earlier this year to ask the area’s legislative delegation to submit a bill allowing the county to keep three districts.

But the deadline for submitting local and private legislation had already passed, which Dearing said forced him to tack an amendment to that effect onto an existing bill &045; SB 2798, which calls for raises for elected county officials.

In any case, county supervisors &045; who drew up both two- and three-district redistricting maps, just in case &045; will hold a public hearing at 10 a.m. Monday in their meeting room on State Street, a hearing some candidates said they plan to attend.

Meanwhile, while they were disappointed by news of the bill’s fate, Toles and Vess both said they will still do the jobs they were elected to do, hearing cases as fairly and quickly as they can.

&uot;We’ll just have to learn how to live with it,&uot; Toles said.

&uot;Whether it’s one, three or two judges, I’ll still do the same job I’ve always done &045; it just may be a little slower,&uot; Vess said.