JACKSON, Miss. — Lawyers are opening a new front in objections to jailing Mississippians who can’t pay court fines — filing complaints that could get judges punished.
The Southern Poverty Law Center and the MacArthur Justice Center on Tuesday sued the city of Corinth and Municipal Judge John Ross in federal court for improperly jailing people who can’t afford to pay fines.
“No inquiry into their ability to pay ever occurs,” a complaint states. “These bail and fine practices are in direct conflict with well-established law that prohibits wealth-based discrimination.”
The lawyers handling the suit said they’ve also filed a complaint with the state Judicial Performance Commission against Ross for violating the new rules. That means the state Supreme Court could be asked to sanction Ross, which is ultimately an appeal to the justices to enforce the statewide criminal court rules they rolled out last summer.
Those rules say judges are supposed to consider a person’s ability to pay when setting bail or jailing someone for unpaid fines, and that even defendants in misdemeanor cases should be appointed a government-paid lawyer if they face jail time upon conviction.
“We understand the seriousness of submitting a complaint to the Judicial Performance Commission, and we do not do so lightly,” MacArthur lawyer Cliff Johnson wrote in an email. “In those cases where we see consistent disregard for the law and the rights of indigent defendants over a period of months or years, however, we believe that our ethical duties leave us no choice but to submit such a complaint.”
Corinth city attorney Wendell Trapp didn’t immediately respond to a phone call and an email seeking comment.
Ross, a retired chancery judge who also presides as municipal judge in several other cities, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Multiple Mississippi jurisdictions have reformed their practices after being sued, including Biloxi , Jackson , Moss Point and Scott County . Johnson, in an earlier phone interview, said he was frustrated that some judges and courts are flouting the new rules.
The lawsuit and judicial complaint outline four main problems. First, bail is automatically set for people arrested on Corinth city charges using a bail schedule, and Ross doesn’t inquire in once-weekly court sessions whether people can afford bail. That could mean weeks of sitting in jail waiting for a trial on a misdemeanor charge.
Second, they say Ross takes guilty pleas without adequately warning defendants that they’re giving up their right to trial.
Third, they say Ross is failing to assign people lawyers when they face jail time, even though court rules say a lawyer must be assigned “in any criminal proceeding which may result in punishment by loss of liberty.”
Finally, they say that when Ross sentences someone, he requires them to pay all of any fine $299 or less, and at least half of any fine of $300 or more. Anyone who can’t pay is sent to jail, with $25 a day credited against the fine for every day served. State court rules say a judge is only supposed to jail someone for nonpayment after a hearing in which a judge determines that the person had the ability to pay, but refused.