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How much does your judge cost?

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Edwin L. Pittman has been busy pushing for reform on the bench – better Internet access, cameras in the courtrooms and changing the terms of judges to help take some of the politics out of the bench.

The first has been a blessing to the court, the second should be pursued with cautious excitement and the third falls well short of what truly needs to be done.

The only way to rid the judicial system of political shenanigans is to switch from elected to appointed judgeships.

When the state Court of Appeals was set up under former Gov. Kirk Fordice, members of his administration fought for the judges to be appointed by the governor. Such an idea died a quick death in the House.

But there is growing acknowledgement that something must be done to remove politics from Mississippi’s judicial system before things get out of hand.

“What we’ve seen here in Mississippi is child’s play compared to some states, like Texas,” a former top Fordice aide said, referring to our state’s most recent Supreme Court races that pitted trial lawyers against big business in an ugly election.

In Texas, candidates run openly as the “Trial Lawyer Candidate” or the “Business Candidate.” There are no punches pulled when they choose sides, no clever names like ICE PAC to disguise interest groups. (ICE PAC, which stands for the Institute for Consumers and the Environment Political Action Committee, is composed of trial lawyers who pump thousands of dollars into judicial races.)

This gets to the heart of the debate. Should people who will argue before these judges be allowed to donate money to their political campaigns? How indebted will elected judges become to those who got them elected?

In such scenarios, one must question the independence of the men and women who uphold the laws of our state.

Another concern is that many qualified attorneys who would make excellent judges never will sit on the bench for a very simple reason: they want nothing to do with politics.

It is not uncommon for a governor’s staff to reach out to an attorney, testing the waters for a possible appointment to a vacated bench, and be turned down.

The reason? An election will be coming up. Not everyone wants to give up a law practice and jump into such a fray.

But there is something even more noble in pursuing appointed judgeships. By appointing judges, dignity can be restored to some seats that have lost it, where the judges are more interested in campaigning for reelection than upholding the law.

Case in point: Supreme Court Justice Charles McRae.

“I expect it’s an act of pure politics,” Pittman recently said of an award McRae gave to Adams County Circuit Clerk M.L. “Binkey” Vines.

Just like a gospel gathering in Jones County earlier this year, McRae passed it off as something the Supreme Court did, while it was just something McRae had done.

True reform will leave judges to oversee the law without the hindrance of politics. Until such time, our state courts will be controlled by the highest bidder.

Sam R. Hall

is managing editor of The Democrat. He can be reached at (601) 445-3552 or by e-mail to

sam.hall@natchezdemocrat.com

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