Most of us will agree that we want the courtroom to be a place of fairness and justice. Sadly, some days that just doesn’t seem to be the case. According to Mississippi Department of Public Safety Commissioner, Marshall Fisher, the day a judge made the decision to throw out a DUI case against the Tupelo city attorney was such a day.
According to Fisher, “Judges are to use the law and facts when deciding whether police actions are constitutional, and Justice Court Judge Chuck Hopkins had neither the law nor the facts on his side when he dismissed the case against Tupelo city attorney Ben Logan.”
Back in December, Mr. Logan was stopped at a Mississippi Highway Patrol safety checkpoint and arrested for driving under the influence. He had been seen attempting to avoid the checkpoint by pulling into a private lot of a closed business. Multiple officers witnessed Logan showing visible signs of intoxication such as glassy eyes and slurred speech. He was taken to the Lee County jail but was never booked. He was, however, released to his girlfriend who was allowed to drive him home.
Although hearing was scheduled at the Lee County Justice Court, Logan’s attorneys filed a motion claiming that the checkpoint was unconstitutional. Judge Hopkins agreed with the motion and dismissed the case on July 11th citing court records which apparently did not show that the troopers who conducted the checkpoint had permission from their supervisors.
However, according to Fisher, “No Mississippi Supreme Court case requires law enforcement have permission from their superior before conducting a safety checkpoint. But even if that permission was required, the troopers in this case had it. The Master Sergeant was present and even witnessed Ben Logan avoid the safety checkpoint.”
Mississippi Justice Court is the only court in the state where judges are not required to be attorneys. They are elected positions and according to Jackson County’s website, Justice Court Judges are elected officials serving four-year terms. To qualify to serve as a Justice Judge the candidate must meet the following requirements:
- High School diploma is mandated
- Justice Court Training Course provided by the Mississippi Judicial College of the University of Mississippi Law Center
- Annual continuing education requirement prescribed by the Judicial College
- Resident of the County at least two years prior to serving.
- Hold at least one session of court per month, but not more than two.
Guess what? Judge Hopkins is not an attorney and, according to Fisher, “created his own requirements for [the] safety checkpoint.”
Does this bother anyone else? Does it bother anyone else that Judge Hopkins doesn’t need a license to practice law, doesn’t need a law degree, and doesn’t even need an undergraduate college degree? What’s more, according to the Mississippi Code, newly elected justices have six months to complete their Justice Court Training Course. This essentially means that someone could potentially finish the courses in less time than that.
Attorneys in every other state, for the most part, are required to obtain a four-year undergraduate bachelor’s degree before attending law school. Law schools then select only a handful of top-performing undergraduate students to attend and obtain a law degree. After three grueling years of law school, students obtain a law degree…if they survive law school. Then, if they graduate law school, students can take the bar exam for their respective state, the pass rate of which is often very low (especially here in California). If they pass the bar exam, only then can they become lawyers who can later become judges. This is a screening process to ensure that only qualified, legally versed professionals are able to make important decisions which affect the lives of citizens.
Now contrast this with Mississippi’s lax (to put it mildly) standards.
Lives are literally in the hands of judges and justices. It takes years to learn the law so that it can be applied properly to achieve a just result. It does not and should not take a high school diploma and a six-month (likely less) course. Otherwise, as Fisher pointed out, you have lay-people sitting on judge benches making decision which affect the lives of people, not based on the law, but based on their own personal beliefs, gut feelings, or political preferences.
I find this appalling.
“This case is nothing more than local politics getting the end result they wanted by blaming a state agency,” Fisher said. “When non-lawyer judges start making decisions on what is considered constitutional under the law, these types of mistakes will continue to happen.”