Should Judges Be Lawyers?

Mississippi has an interesting judicial institution known as a justice court:

The mission of the Justice Court Clerk's office is to effectively serve the public by processing civil actions not to exceed $2,500.00 and misdemeanor criminal charges in accordance with section 9-11-11 of the Mississippi Code.

An individual appearing before a justice court may file either a criminal charge or a civil suit. A plaintiff who seeks only money can start what amounts to a small claims action. If the complaint "involves the violation of a criminal statute," the complaining party can prepare "an affidavit charging criminal activity as defined by Mississippi law."

Where probable cause is shown in the affidavit to believe that the person charged committed the crime, the accused will be arrested, tried, and if found guilty, punished as prescribed by law. The punishment may include fines and/or confinement. Some form of restitution to the victim may or may not be forthcoming if the accused is found guilty.

These are serious consequences, and those unfortunate persons who find themselves charged in a Mississippi justice court must be shocked to learn that the only qualification to be a judge in a justice court is a high school diploma. A task force has suggested "reforms" that fail to address the kind of legal training required to assure that criminal defendants receive a fair trial. The task force recommends that future justice court judges have:

An associate's degree or five years' work as a law enforcement officer, paralegal, court clerk, deputy clerk or court administrator.

An associate's degree or five years as a police officer qualifies somebody to act as a judge? Join the rest of the country, Mississippi. Judges need legal training. Anything less will invite unfairness.

Here's what the Clarion-Ledger has to say:

In most places ... it's illegal for judges to receive cash from those who may appear before them. But in Mississippi, it's perfectly legal for judges to accept cash, undisclosed loans and campaign contributions from lawyers, businesses and medical professionals who will be litigants in their courts.
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    actually scribe, (5.00 / 0) (#3)
    by cpinva on Sun Dec 09, 2007 at 08:07:44 AM EST
    that's not quite true.

    when a government is run by a bunch of crackers intent on keeping life in the past where everyone knew their place and stayed there.

    the gov't of mississippi is owned and run by the old plantation owners, who hire the crackers to do their dirty work for them. really, the only difference from before the civil war is that slavery has technically been outlawed.

    you'll find this to be true of most of the other deep south states as well.

    A good point (none / 0) (#4)
    by scribe on Sun Dec 09, 2007 at 10:17:28 AM EST
    I try to keep as much distance as possible between myself and the Deep South, thus far successfully.  At this distance, though, it's kind of hard to tell who are the crackers and who are the plantation owners, particularly when they all kind of sound the same and use the same words.

    My apologies for confusing the frat boys from Ol' Miss and the farm boys with manure still between their toes, dirtying the former and unduly elevating the latter.


    I agree. (none / 0) (#18)
    by jimakaPPJ on Tue Dec 11, 2007 at 07:49:23 AM EST
    I try to keep as much distance as possible between myself and the Deep South, thus far successfully.

    Please, please, please buy a compass.

    And then use it.


    you know, (none / 0) (#1)
    by cpinva on Sun Dec 09, 2007 at 01:35:23 AM EST
    i could make a mighty good living as one of those "judges". give them some credit, they put corruption right up front, where everyone can see it! lol

    i believe ny state has a similar system in place, the nyt's did a series on it not too long ago. while their's has qualifications similar to mississippi, i believe they also require that you be able to speak a version of english the rest of us can understand, without a translator present.

    think about it: the guy who was ranked 500th, in a class of 499, from high school, could be sitting in judgment of you.

    What do you call (none / 0) (#8)
    by NMvoiceofreason on Sun Dec 09, 2007 at 11:32:59 AM EST
    an attorney,

    with an apparent IQ of 40,

    apparently neither able to write nor read?

    "Your honor".


    While I haven't been before one in a long time (none / 0) (#2)
    by scribe on Sun Dec 09, 2007 at 06:13:32 AM EST
    and therefore cannot say whether it still obtains, Pennsylvania had a district magistrate system which did not require college education.
    And, that came after reforms in the 60s which eliminated the old "Justice of the Peace" system.  The JP could marry, adjudge minor criminal offenses, and issue warrants, all in his living room.  The district magistrate in a small town I'm familiar with (relatives lived there) has/had been on the job maybe 30 years - and used to run the court in the back of his gun shop.  No law dregree, but knew all everything that was going on.  IIRC, ultimately the State required them to use space dedicated only to the judicial purpose (IIRC, the state poined up the lease money), so no more court among the racks of 30-30s.

    New Jersey, OTOH, requires -per its constitution -all persons exercising judicial offices (including local judges) to be lawyers and requires trial court judges to have been admitted for at least 10 years.

    The core problem is not necessarily in having "untrained" people being judges - they can learn the law (and had better be able to: if the law is too complicated for the average person to understand, it should not be the law) and apply it.  Rather, the expansion of collateral consequences from proceedings in low-level courts is a real bugaboo.

    That Mississippi is backward enough to (a) allow mixing criminal and civil law, (b) allow initiation of criminal proceedings and entry of judgment in them based upon information developed in the course of the same proceeding, (c) not outlaw bribing judges (among other things) merely reflects the low regard in which the idea and practice of law as a governing principle is held, when a government is run by a bunch of crackers intent on keeping life in the past where everyone knew their place and stayed there.

    Lawyers bad, people good (none / 0) (#5)
    by NMvoiceofreason on Sun Dec 09, 2007 at 11:11:32 AM EST
    The law does not belong to the lawyers.

    The law does not belong to the lawyers.

    The law DOES NOT belong to the lawyers.

    The law belongs to the people.

    When the law can no longer be understood by the people, either the people need to be educated or the law needs to be fixed.

    Putting the law into the hands of lawyers has had terrible consequences. No one need be any better educated than the Founding Fathers to trounce lawyers in what is the right decision, in a case, for our country, for the world.

    Supremes as lawyers bad (none / 0) (#6)
    by NMvoiceofreason on Sun Dec 09, 2007 at 11:16:33 AM EST
    The Supreme Court of the Republican Party has made us suffer greatly from their allegiance to a single ideology. They are also incredibly lazy. Less than 80 cases of the 5000-7000 cases filed every year are actually heard, because the lazy lawyers have come up with an excuse NOT to hear the most important cases in the land.

    Require they do the work. And pick them the way we did until the last century, when the lawyers union took over.

    AUSAs as lawyers bad (none / 0) (#7)
    by NMvoiceofreason on Sun Dec 09, 2007 at 11:29:19 AM EST
    Yet again, the ability of any monopoly power to run amok in our society unchecked must be stopped. Lawyers have made up excuses not to enforce the law, such as in contempt of congress, when the law (and statutory construction) requires they SHALL. AUSA's must be appointed according to a fair distribution of the parties in the US, not the one who currently holds power. No one can prosecute the abuses of 50 USC 1809 in the current system, where there are thousands, maybe millions of felony violations going unprosecuted.

    Career Justice Department lawyers can carry out the trial prep and details. But answer me how many cases you would win against Angeline Jolie or Brad Pitt?

    How many lawyers claim to be strict constructionists? How many of those are actually able to read? "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people." Which rights does that specifically protect? How many are enforced by the lawyers? None.

    If they can't (or won't) protect the Constitution, why should we let them prosecute ANYONE?

    Makes no difference without accountability (none / 0) (#9)
    by B on Sun Dec 09, 2007 at 12:54:25 PM EST
    Texas is one of the most backward states and arguably the most violent.  Justice of Peace is an elected, county level position that handles civil cash-only claims up to $5,000 and certain misdemeanors.  Neither legal degree nor membership in the bar is required.  The Judicial Ethics Commission rarely rules against either judges, who are required to be lawyers, or JPs.  Judges are all elected and there is essentially no concept of conflict of interest for campaign donations.  Recently judges and JPs have been given free passes for repeatedly failing to file campaign finance reports and not accounting for thousands in fines.

    Lawyers (none / 0) (#10)
    by Abdul Abulbul Amir on Sun Dec 09, 2007 at 02:09:09 PM EST

    Was the task force that recommended these positions be filled only with lawyers composed of lawyers?

    NMvoiceofreason, (none / 0) (#11)
    by cpinva on Sun Dec 09, 2007 at 03:11:47 PM EST
    i think you're confused, with respect to the founding father's academic credentials. for the most part, washington being the most obvious exception, they were trained attorneys, the ones who actually authored the constitution and the laws.

    washington, while lacking the formal academic credentials of jefferson & madison, was extremely well read, and did have some formal education. he was no dummy. having been raised in the va aristocracy, he considered himself, and was accepted by his class, as a well bred gentleman.

    his letters make clear that his lack of a college degree didn't hinder his understanding of the consequences of all the activities he was involved in.

    so, while it's true that many of the "founding fathers" lacked a formal education, they were in no way the uneducated boobs you would have us believe.

    Occupations (none / 0) (#12)
    by NMvoiceofreason on Sun Dec 09, 2007 at 05:32:35 PM EST
    The 1787 delegates practiced a wide range of high and middle-status occupations, and many pursued more than one career simultaneously. They did not differ dramatically from the Loyalists, except they were younger and less senior in their professions.[5] Thirty-five were lawyers or had benefited from legal education, though not all of them relied on the profession for a livelihood. Some had also become judges.[6]

        * At the time of the convention, 13 men were merchants: Blount, Broom, Clymer, Dayton, Fitzsimons, Shields, Gilman, Gorham, Langdon, Robert Morris, Pierce, Sherman, and Wilson.
        * Six were major land speculators: Blount, Dayton, Fitzsimons, Gorham, Robert Morris, and Wilson.
        * Eleven speculated in securities on a large scale: Bedford, Blair, Clymer, Dayton, Fitzsimons, Franklin, King, Langdon, Robert Morris, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and Sherman.
        * Twelve owned or managed slave-operated plantations or large farms: Bassett, Blair, Blount, Butler, Carroll, Jenifer, Mason, Charles Pinckney, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Rutledge, Spaight, and Washington. Madison also owned slaves as did Franklin, who later freed his slaves and became an abolitionist.
        * Broom and Few were small farmers.
        * Nine of the men received a substantial part of their income from public office: Baldwin, Blair, Brearly, Gilman, Jenifer, Livingston, Madison, and Rutledge.
        * Three had retired from active economic endeavors: Franklin, McHenry, and Mifflin.
        * Franklin and Williamson were scientists, in addition to their other activities.
        * McClurg, McHenry, and Williamson were physicians, and Johnson was a college president.


    BTW I think a legal education (none / 0) (#13)
    by NMvoiceofreason on Sun Dec 09, 2007 at 05:37:47 PM EST
    is a good idea. I think a paralegal course should be part of every high school curriculum.

    I just don't think lawyers own the law. The people do.

    I never said that the Founding Fathers were boobs. In fact, while thirty five of them had legal training, most of them were much smarter than lawyers and actually made a living from other than being a member of the parasite class.

    We have suffered greatly by having lawyers making the law and interpreting the law. Only people who have something at stake should be allowed to mess with our democracy. Lawyers create nothing but trouble and therefore have nothing to lose.


    Came out too harsh (none / 0) (#15)
    by NMvoiceofreason on Mon Dec 10, 2007 at 04:28:33 AM EST
    Let me point out that those lawyers engaged in enforcing the social contract (defense atty. like Jeralyn, Big Tent), and esp. death qualified atty. have my respect. It can be very hard not to get ground down by the process and the system.

    Let me also say that there are many public pretenders out there working for the prosecution side of the street, and many prosecutors, like Nancy Grace, who would take the ham sandwich their grand jury indicted all the way to the death chamber if they could, and they will be mad about it forever if they cant.


    It's Not Just Mississippi (none / 0) (#14)
    by JDB on Sun Dec 09, 2007 at 07:01:37 PM EST
    In West Virginia, magistrates are only required to have a high school education.  They handle small civil cases, misdemeanor criminal cases, and some preliminary proceedings in felony cases (prelims, initial appearances, etc.).  Most relevant to my life in federal court, they handle lots of search warrant applications from local police.

    It's hard to get a decent job in the private sector without a college degree these days.  It should take at least that to sit in judgment of another human being.

    NMvoiceofreason, (none / 0) (#17)
    by cpinva on Mon Dec 10, 2007 at 08:34:01 AM EST
    your posts betray your ignorance. i want an uneducated person writing laws about as much as i want one operating on me. for that matter, i don't want an uneducated person working on my car's engine either.

    while i don't always agree with the laws we have, i feel reasonably confident that the worst will be struck down by the courts, that whole "checks and balances" thing. further, the most egregiously incompetent of our representatives will eventually disgust even their supporters, and be turned out of office.

    it isn't a perfect system, possibly the worst, except for, as the man said, "every other one".

    lawyers, as a group, are no less ethically challenged than any other profession, in my experience. i work with a lot of attorneys and cpa's. both groups have that small % of scuzzbags, it's the way of the world.

    that said, you unfairly condemn an entire profession, because of the actions of a rogue few.

    Many jurisdictions have "lay judges" (none / 0) (#19)
    by Deconstructionist on Tue Dec 11, 2007 at 08:05:20 AM EST
     manning certain inferior courts.

      I really don't have a problem with lay judges deciding small civil claims or petty offenses. Most of these cases do not require much in the way of technical legal knowledge and common sense and a sense of fairness are usually more important than legal training. So long as prompt and meaningfukl review in a higher court is available and a  stay and/or appeal bond is available pending review, relatively little harm is caused even if a lay judge makes a legal error that is critical to the outcome of the case. Balancing that relatively small and infrequent harm against the benefits of less expensive, less formal and quicker resolution, a case can be made for having lay judges.

      That is not the case with respect to search and arrest warrants. I have huge problems with allowing lay judges to issue orders allwing people to be arrested and incarcerated or have their privacy invaded under color of law. Great harm can flow from misunderstanding or inattention to the complexities of laws and constitutional protections related to search and seizure and arrest and it cannot be "corrected" by later review.


    Even in Arizona (none / 0) (#20)
    by katmandu on Mon Jan 07, 2008 at 08:24:35 PM EST
    The Justice of the Peace position doesn't require
    any legal experience.  It's more of a common
    sense position.
    Of course, he only levies fines, marries, and
    handles non-criminal problems
    Not everything you do in the court system
    requires legal knowledge.
    Who cares if they have legal experience when they
    marry you or levies a fine for speeding?