Justice court judges required to go back to class

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 30, 2010

NATCHEZ — Justice court judges in Mississippi elected next year will be newly required to spend more hours in a classroom in order to sit on the bench.

The Mississippi State Legislature put together a task force in 2007 to examine the justice court system, which made several suggestions for changes.

Many items included in the task force’s report were not acted on by the legislature, but the law now requires more continuing studies and basic training for justice court judges at the suggestion of the task force.

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Adams County Justice Court Judge Charlie Vess said adding more training for justice court judges is an important move toward better preparing justice court judges across the state.

Vess said the responsibilities of justice court judges have been gradually expanding during the last 10 years, and he believes more educational requirements are necessary.

In addition, the jurisdictional limits for civil cases were recently increased from $2,500 to $3,500, expanding justice court’s jurisdiction in civil cases, which was suggested by the task force.

New laws, which will go into affect Jan. 1, 2012, require first-term justice court judges to take 80 hours of basic training and pass a competency exam from the Mississippi Judicial College of the University of Mississippi Law Center.

Starting in 2012, justice court judges will also be required to take 24 hours of annual continuing studies at the Mississippi Judicial College.

Currently, justice court judges have to complete only 32 hours of basic training courses and 18 hours of continuing education per year.

If the judges fail to complete the required training within eight months of beginning their term, the judge is ordered to forfeit his or her office.

While additional training is a step forward, Vess said the standard should be raised for general education requirements for justice court judges.

The legal education requirement for justice court judges is currently a high school diploma or GED.

The task force suggested a requirement of at least an associate’s degree from a two-year college to qualify to run for justice court judge. The task force also suggested allowing five years experience as a certified law enforcement officer, paralegal, court clerk, deputy clerk or court administrator to stand in lieu of a degree.

However, the state did not change the law.

The task force also suggested allowing five years experience as a certified law enforcement officer, paralegal, court clerk, deputy clerk or court administrator to stand in lieu of a degree.

Despite the minimal educational requirements and often-low salaries of justice court judges, Vess said there has been a recent movement toward more educated people presiding over justice court rooms.

Mississippi Judicial College Director Cynthia Davis said 22 justice court judges are licensed attorneys in the state.

The state legislature created the task force, which held nine public hearings across the state in regard to qualifications, judicial training, election, salaries, jurisdiction and discretion to limit jury trials, Kraft said.

The task force also suggested making justice court judicial elections non-partisan, but the state did not act on the recommendation.

Currently, justice court judges are the only judges who declare political party affiliations and whose elections occur during the general election, rather than judicial elections.

Vess said when justice court judicial elections occur during the general election, candidates for other offices sometimes attempt to conduct back-room deals with them.

“Judges shouldn’t be caught up in that type of political partisan politics,” Vess said.

“We’re supposed to be the guy in the middle.”

Mississippi has 82 justice courts with 197 justice court judges.

Justice courts have jurisdiction over small claims civil cases, misdemeanor criminal cases and any traffic offense that occurs outside a municipality.

Justice court judges may conduct bond hearings and preliminary hearings in felony criminal cases and may issue search warrants and arrest warrants.