JACKSON, Mississippi — Mississippi law helps out lawyers who serve in the Legislature and their clients when it comes to court cases that arise while the state House of Representatives and Senate are in session.
The results can be a mixed bag.
Rep. Jeff Smith, a Republican from Columbus, and Rep. Bob Evans, a Democrat from Monticello, are both lawyers. Each has a case pending before the Mississippi Supreme Court. In recent motions filed with the court, both have sought delays in the cases.
Each cited a Mississippi law that calls for court or administrative cases to be delayed when they conflict with a legislative session and the attorneys are representatives or senators.
The law says the continuance is "predicated upon the ground that the counsel for the party making said application is a member of the Mississippi Legislature and if said application is made at a time when the Legislature is in session, either regular or extraordinary, or if said Legislature will be in session at the time that said cause would be triable, then the continuance shall be granted in all cases."
That's a lot of verbiage to say that legislator-lawyers and their clients are afforded special privileges when the Legislature is working, that the legislative work of the people takes precedence over the state's justice system.
Smith represents the Lowndes County School Board in a lawsuit over the firings of a local principal and a baseball coach. He asked the state Supreme Court to delay the scheduled April 2 oral argument until after the legislative session, which is scheduled to end by April 6.
The court then reset oral arguments for April 14.
Evans had sought the same relief for his client, Chancery Judge Joe Dale Walker, who is involved in a disciplinary proceeding with the Commission on Judicial Performance. No oral argument was scheduled in that case.
The Commission on Judicial Performance had sought interim suspension with pay for Walker while its investigation continues into alleged inappropriate actions involving a conservatorship in Walker's court.
The Supreme Court granted the commission's request last month.
The court said the request from Evans was rendered moot by the interim suspension, which was likely to leave the case pending beyond the time the Legislature adjourns.
Some legislator-lawyers don't take that route.
Last year, state Rep. Ed Blackmon Jr. appeared before the Supreme Court for arguments in a case between a hospital and a medical clinic over a disputed sale.
Court documents don't show any motion by Blackmon, a Democrat from Canton, to delay the hearing because of his legislative responsibilities.
The law, on the books since 1972, has been viewed with some skepticism by the state Supreme Court.
In a 1980 case, the court rejected arguments from Sheldon Gooch that a trial judge made a mistake in not rescheduling his armed robbery trial while his legislator-lawyer was busy at the Capitol. Gooch argued the trial judge should have moved the case to the next term of Circuit Court. The judge set the case for trial a few days after the legislative session was to end.
In its ruling, the court said the word "continuance" was not defined in the law so the trial judge had discretion to set the date when he wished.
However, the Supreme Court noted that Gooch did not question the constitutionality of the law "so we express no opinion whether it is an unwarranted invasion of the judicial power which is separate under our constitution," wrote Justice Robert Sugg.
Sugg referred to Sections 1 and 2 of the Mississippi Constitution of 1890 — separation of powers and the prohibition of one branch of government exercising the powers of another.
A bill was proposed in the 2014 session to extend the continuance provision to pre-trial matters, such as motions hearings, but the proposal died in a Senate committee.