Lee, Wingate highlight the good of courts

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 31, 2003

People poured into the federal courthouse in downtown Jackson on Monday for a ceremonial and effective event that highlighted the positive side of our judiciary in Mississippi, an event that stood in sharp contrast to months of mud-slinging and name-calling from our state’s top justices.

Guests of honor for this ceremony were U.S. District Court Judges Tom S. Lee and Henry T. Wingate. During the ceremony, Lee passed the gavel to Wingate as chief of the court for the Southern District of Mississippi.

In the past years, Mississippi’s judicial eyes have been blackened by the antics and supposed antics of our highest state court. Justice Chuck McRae has been at the center of most of the controversies, but Chief Justice Ed Pittman and Justice Oliver Diaz have also made their way into the storm.

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Lee spoke indirectly to this when he recalled to those in attendance his seven-year term as chief judge. He said his colleagues on the federal bench did not always agree and sometimes entered into lively &045; even heated &045; debates. However, he said, when decisions were made by the majority, the whole of the court accepted it and on they moved.

Lee and Wingate heaped respect upon one another. Wingate described Lee’s years as chief judge as ones of &8220;sturdy guidance and quiet leadership.&8221; Lee praised Wingate for his unwavering support during the past seven years and vowed that same respect and support to Wingate during his seven-year term.

Fifth Judicial Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals Chief Judge Carolyn King, who presided over the ceremony, hailed the achievements of both men. She called Lee a &8220;judge’s judge,&8221; a man who knew the law &8220;as well or better than any lawyer or judge in Mississippi.&8221;

She told of a recent case in which she was prepared to overturn one of Lee’s rulings. Every other member of the Appeals Court, however, disagreed with King. &8220;In my defense, all I can say is that I changed my vote with the rest of them to uphold Judge Lee’s ruling,&8221; King said to laughter.

For Wingate, King said the word &8220;first&8221; is synonymous with him. Wingate was the first black assistant attorney general, first black federal prosecutor and first black federal judge in Mississippi. &8220;Today, we can now add the first black chief judge of a federal court in Mississippi,&8221; King said.

Wingate’s work with youth through Court Watch, a program Wingate started in 1985 and continues to underwrite today, also points to the dedication Wingate has for his community and state, King said.

Lee was first appointed to the federal bench in 1984. In 1996, he succeeded Judge William Barbour as chief judge. As chief judge, Lee was allowed the option to cut his caseload by 20 percent because of the administrative duties that accompany the position. Lee, however, opted to keep the same caseload as the other judges.

In the coming years, Wingate will face two monumental projects. The first is the renovation of Memorial Hall in Natchez, which serves as a federal courthouse. This project was started under Lee’s leadership. Barbour serves as the point man.

It would be good for our state judges to look at how their federal brethren do business. Furthermore, it would be good for our legislators to realize that the real difference between our federal and state judges &045; besides the undeniable, impeccable character of our federal judiciary in Mississippi &045; is that federal judges are appointed and subject to a thorough investigation and approval process. Our state judiciary is elected, selected by the masses &045; still a minority of our actual citizenry because of low voter turnout &045; and subject to the evils money invites into the political process.

Sam R. Hall

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