JACKSON – By design, turnover on the nine-member Mississippi Supreme Court normally occurs at glacier-like speed.
But in less than two years, nearly half of the members have either retired or accepted new positions, giving Republican Gov. Phil Bryant a rare opportunity to exert considerable influence on the state’s highest court.
Bryant already has made two appointments to the Supreme Court in less than two years. With the announcement last week that Southern District Justice Jess Dickinson is stepping down to accept an appointment by Bryant as commissioner of the Department of Child Protection Services, the governor will be able to make another appointment to the Supreme Court in the coming weeks.
Under state law, judicial vacancies are filled by the governor. The gubernatorial appointment fills the rest of the term. Supreme Court justices serve eight year staggered terms.
Rep. Jay Hughes, D-Oxford, said he believes it is suspicious that so many members of the state’s highest court are either retiring or stepping down to accept new positions.
“I wish we would get back to people electing the justices instead of the political parties appointing them,” Hughes said. “I don’t know what is going on.”
Chief Justice William Waller Jr. said the multiple resignations are just coincidences and happen on occasion.
“I do not think it is unusual. I had three new justices in 2009 when I became chief justice… That said, it is hard work and requires a substantial sacrifice if done right,” Waller said of the Supreme Court.
What is at least a little unusual with the current group of vacancies is that in three instances, justices have stepped down or are stepping down late in their terms to take different positions.
In the Northern District, David Chandler stepped down in December 2015 to take the post of commissioner of the Department of Child Protection Services. Bryant appointed James Maxwell of Oxford to finish the term that ended in January 2017.
Maxwell won election unopposed in November to the new eight year term.
A similar scenario occurred in the Southern District in that Randy Pierce left the Court about the same time Chandler did. Pierce accepted the post of executive director of the Judicial College at the University of Mississippi.
Like Chandler, Pierce was facing re-election in November 2016. Bryant appointed Dawn Beam, a Lamar chancellor, to fill out Pierce’s term in December 2015, and she won election to the new eight year term in November.
Northern District Justice Ann Hannaford Lamar also was up for re-election in November. She opted not to run for another term. Bobby Chamberlain, a DeSoto County circuit judge, was elected to replace Lamar. Soon after Bryant appointed Lamar to the Board of Trustees of state Institutions of Higher Learning – a part-time position.
And now Dickinson, who was up for re-election in November 2018, is stepping down to accept the same post as head of the Department of Child Protection Services that Chandler previously resigned from the Supreme Court to accept.
With Dickinson leaving, Southern District Justice Michael Randolph of Hattiesburg is in line to assume the post of chief justice should Waller leave the Court. Randolph, who returned to the Court after undergoing heart surgery last year, is not up for re-election until November 2020.
Waller of the Central District also will next be on the ballot in November 2020.
Under Supreme Court guidelines, the most senior judge serves as the chief justice. The three justices with the most seniority, including the chief justice, are presiding justices who preside over the three judge panels that hear cases.
With Dickinson retiring, James Kitchens of the Central District becomes the third presiding justice, perhaps completing the recent Supreme Court shuffle.