Should Justice Court Judges Be Lawyers?


Hinds County Justice Court candidate Micah Dutro said a bar-approved attorney should occupy county judicial seats.

Attorney Micah Dutro says the District 1 Justice Court seat needs a judge with a law degree.

"Our justice courts should have judges who have a formal legal education and experience. I'm sure they're good people. They make good decisions sometimes, but if you look at what is going on in surrounding counties, almost all their justice-court judges are lawyers," Dutro said.

Dutro, 29, works at Dobbs and Dutro in Jackson and is running for the District 1 Justice Court seat. He said that without a legal background, a justice-court judge is prone to render decisions based on personal considerations instead of the rule of law, which sets the decisions up for easy legal challenges.

"We get a lot of appeals out of justice court because of some decisions that are made there, and those appeals go to the county court, which as you can imagine, is already busy," Dutro said. "The efficiency problem in justice court comes in where you have decisions that are being appealed that might not have to be appealed if the law were being applied correctly."

Justice court mainly consists of bench trials with no juries, where a judge is the finder of fact and rules on questions of law. Like any court, some cases are resolved through plea bargains, usually accompanied by a prosecutor's sentencing recommendation. Justice court in Hinds County is typically a small affair. A typical justice-court case would be a driving-while-intoxicated charge brought by Hinds County law enforcement somewhere outside the city's municipal boundary.

Dutro said the intimate make-up of the court evolved from Mississippi's history as a rural state.

"When justice courts were created in the 1800s, it made sense," Dutro said. "There weren't very many attorneys in Mississippi, and a lot of the attorneys that were here were concentrated in just a few places. So in an era of few cars, you could wait months and months before someone was even available to hear your case."

Organizers sought to create a court where people could settle minor disputes without advanced legal education and permitting requirements that, at that time, were hard to find in Mississippi.

Dutro faces incumbent Democrat Donald Palmer, who has occupied the seat for four years, after serving as a court clerk.

Palmer, 43, said his experience on the court makes him the best candidate to oversee the types of cases that frequent the court.

"The justice court is set up as a court for the people, and I bring 14 years of justice court experience: 10 years as a deputy clerk and four as a judge," Palmer said.

"That experience counts. I have no idea if my opponent has even practiced in justice court. I know I've never seen him
in my court. There are some good lawyers, but there are some good non-attorney judges as well."

Dutro said the county should move toward installing more attorneys as judges, considering the prevalence of licensed attorneys in justice courts outside Hinds County.

"There are lots of people who say not-so-nice things about Jackson and Hinds County, but one of the solutions to that problem is to make sure that people take our government institutions seriously," Dutro said.

"We need to restore faith in our local institutions, to make sure that we're following the law and that it applies to the outcomes of our court system. Following the law and making common sense decisions aren't mutually exclusive goals."

Palmer remained confident that he runs the court fairly and sensibly, and asked anybody looking for proof of its standard of professionalism to visit his court on Wednesdays, at either the 9:30 a.m. or the 1:30 p.m. session, to see for themselves. "My opponents can't offer that," Palmer said.

The salaried justice-court judge position pays almost $56,000. The Democratic primary is Aug. 2


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