During one of the recent citizen forum nights for justice court judge candidates, Judge William “Tony” Boykin, currently a sitting justice court judge for District 1 in Oktibbeha County, invited the audience to attend a court proceeding to see how justice is dispensed in the “peoples’ court.”
I accepted his invitation and highly recommend anyone, who hasn’t had an opportunity to witness this type of Mississippi court in action, to do so.
In order to get through the metal detector and into the courtroom you have to leave your purse and cellphone in the car. That almost made me disinvite myself, but I pushed through the initial shock of it and came in with only an attitude.
By statute, Mississippi justice courts handle misdemeanor criminal cases and traffic offenses occurring in the county. They also handle small claims civil matters up to $3,500. Justice court judges may conduct bond hearings and preliminary hearings in felony criminal cases and they may issue search warrants.
This Oktibbeha County court hears its civil cases on Wednesdays. These would be your Judge Judy types of lawsuits. That would be the court day for a typical landlord/tenant dispute for eviction or an effort to collect a debt $3,500 or less.
We were there on a day for processing criminal cases and traffic offenses. The docket for Judge Boykin on that particular day was a daunting 27 pages long. The judge had everything in front of him from DUI first offense to speeding to simple assault.
The courtroom was close to being filled. As we were crawling across people to get seated in the back row, I was reminded of church. There were long wooden pews full of diverse, hopeful and confused people all looking toward the pulpit. The similarity continued with a good bit of head nodding and a lot of folks conversing with God while waiting on their case to be called and the court’s judgment to be rendered.
The court audience dress code ranged from suits and ties, jeans and t-shirts to prison orange jumpsuits with waist chains. In addition to the judge sitting on high to dispense justice, there were bailiffs, sheriff deputies and highway patrol officers on hand to assist. The county prosecutor and court administrative personnel were there as well. It was a complex dance of logistics and administration.
Judge Boykin is a seasoned jurist who clearly was comfortable on the bench. Re-election worries are behind him. He has won the primary and has no opponent for the general election. There are three districts for justice court judge races in Oktibbeha County and there are runoff elections in the other two.
Significant factoid: Justice court judges are the only judges elected in partisan races in our state. I still believe Republican vs. Democrat has no place in decision making for voting in a local election especially for judges.
From the beginning of our republic, judges were appointed to their positions by the governor with legislative approval. Mississippi was the first state to elect judges. We started that back in 1832 and the rest of the states followed suit.
The most interesting and troublesome element of the truths about justice court judges is they don’t need a law degree, or any degree for that matter. That fact is only marginally addressed by the judges attending “judge school.” The most commonly used one is the National Judicial College in Nevada that provides the basics on how to be a judge.
That is a poor substitute for the three years of law school and some years of practical experience to lay the foundation for functioning in our legal system. Like so many things, however, “we have always done it this way.”
My guess is this is a holdover from the days of your mule kicked my mule and my mule can’t pull the plow any more, therefore I should be compensated. Those types of issues don’t take any particularly detailed understanding of the intricacies of the legal system to make a Solomon-like pronouncement of what is fair.
There is much more to it today than even 20 years ago, let alone 100 years ago.
These days that means when you exercise your vote for justice court judge you need to appreciate the legal skills and rational temperament needed for the position. You might one day find yourself in the court church pew asking God for some judicial expertise that goes beyond mule vs. mule.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.