By: Sid Salter
If you need a wise, reasonable soul to adjudicate a drunken misdemeanor bar fight, sort out right from wrong in a traffic ticket, or even to officiate at a wedding, the average Mississippi justice court judge can be your huckleberry.
In my journalism career, I met and came to respect many such judges. Their service to their communities and the people who elected them is invaluable. In my personal life as a guy who spent a lot of days behind the wheel on Mississippi roads, I also met a number of those judges as a guilty lead-foot driver holding a well-deserved speeding ticket from the Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol.
Those reflections lead us to the recent Lee County case that brought Lee County First District Justice Court Judge Chuck Hopkins into the orbit of City Attorney Ben Logan of the City of Tupelo. Seems that while driving home from a holiday party on Dec. 7, 2018, Logan was stopped at a Highway Patrol safety checkpoint that ultimately resulted in drunk driving charges against Logan.
With Logan a public figure by virtue of his city attorney job, the case generated controversy and media attention. But fast forward to July 11, when Judge Hopkins dismissed the charges against Logan by ruling that the Highway Patrol checkpoint was unconstitutional. Hopkins said there was no evidence that the state troopers conducting the checkpoint had the advance approval of their superiors.
Hopkins is a third-generation justice court judge, following his father and grandfather in the role. He’s a graduate of Baldwyn High School and attended Northwest Community College and the Mississippi Judicial College at the University of Mississippi. He’s in the construction and real estate development business, but he’s not an attorney.
The justice court judge’s decision brought swift and brutal criticism from Mississippi Commissioner of Public Safety Marshall Fisher, who said Hopkins “judge “had neither the law nor the facts on his side when he dismissed the case.”
Fisher offered the opinion that the decision was the province of local Lee County politics rather than a just decision involving the facts of the case and the law.
More to the point in this instance and others, the question is begged about the fact that the legal training for Mississippi justice court judges really isn’t sufficient to guarantee that their ability to rule on matters of constitutionality is sufficient for the task.
The Hopkins ruling begs the harder question of whether all DUI suspects in his court prior to Logan received the same level of constitutional review of their DUI charge as did Logan?
Mississippi provides that justice court judges “have jurisdiction over small claims civil cases involving amounts of $3,500 or less, misdemeanor criminal cases and any traffic offense that occurs outside a municipality. Justice court judges may conduct bond hearings and preliminary hearings in felony criminal cases and may issue search warrants.”
But the only qualifications for that judicial authority is that the judge be a qualified elector, a resident of the county two years preceding the day of election, a high school graduate or its equivalent, and completion of a course of training required by law within six months of the beginning of the term of office.
Judicial rulings on fairly complex, thorny matters of Fourth Amendment and Sixth Amendment constitutional issues like probably cause, individualized suspicion simply require more legal education in order to avoid the kind of credibility debate that ensured after the Lee County Justice Court ruling.
This isn’t an attack on justice court judges. Far from it. But we have a 19thcentury system that loses credibility when skilled lawyers argue cases in front of judges not afforded sufficient legal training to decipher and weigh the arguments put before them.