The Role of Trial Judges in State Court Reform: The Case of Mississippi

Article excerpt

Working together with other actors in the legal community, the Trial Judges Liaison Committee enhanced the administration of justice in Mississippi.

Judicial reform efforts seldom succeed without coordinated support from the legal community, including rank and file judges. That said, as a general rule it is challenging within the passively designed Third Branch to mobilize judges to action, much less encourage others in the legal community to join them. And that was especially true in the 1980s in Mississippi when a small number of trial judges' initiated informal and ongoing discussions about the challenges facing the state court system. Among their concerns were these fundamental ones: the need for a centralized administrative infrastructure for state courts; reduced appellate delay in the disposition of cases; improved efficiency and productivity of the trial bench; and enhanced recruitment and retention of qualified jurists.

This informal cadre of judges later became formalized as the Trial Judges Liaison Committee. The committee developed a systematic process for access and action and created necessary liaisons inside and outside the judiciary, as well as with the state bar, court personnel, and the political branches of government, in a coordinated effort to modernize Mississippi courts. Its work, over a period of several years, laid the foundation for extensive legislative reforms, culminating in the Court Improvements Act of 1993, a significant package that included, amone other things, the establishment of both an administrative office of courts and an intermediate appellate court.

The literature on judicial lobbying efforts is, on the whole, sparse. For a long while scholars confined their research to episodic exploits of U.S. Supreme Court justices, and particularly the chief justice.2 Later work began to emphasize the role of the judiciary as a whole, including rank-and-file judges, judicial intermediaries, and bar associations. Almost without exception, this research has addressed lobbying activities of federal judges before Congress on matters involvingjurisdiction, administration, and appropriations.3 At play here as well is the overarching institutional relationship between the First and Third Branches of government, one that political scientists and legal scholars have increasingly addressed.4

No study in the refereed literature, however, details the systematic behind-the-scenes efforts of state judges to effect major reforms.5 Our project attempts to fill that gap by offering a unique sense of the background rhythm of state judicial reform movements. One may claim with some justification that a case study on the Mississippi experience almost two decades ago has limited utility. We believe, however, that its lessons arguably have a timeless quality in that the step-by-step actions by these trial judges offer a template for others to use even today in reform efforts.

Methods

For the most part our society marks important political and legal changes by obvious and convenient milestones, such as wars or elections or statutes or court rulings. Attention to such landmarks alone, though, underplays vital and formative forces that impel such events. The focus on outcome rather than process is understandable, and due in large measure to evidentiary challenges confronting researchers. Absence of formal records, deaths of eyewitnesses, and reluctance of insiders to disclose impede if not thwart documentation. Under these circumstances, it is difficult to reconstruct an accurate image of less visible, yet influential, agents of change. This is especially true of the judiciary, the least public branch. Given these constraints, this study, nonetheless, attempts to recreate the previously unexamined prelude to the modernization of Mississippi courts.

Except for the secondary literature that helps to set its framework, this study relies almost exclusively on primary sources. …