Wednesday, May 5, 2010
Newly appointed Hinds County Circuit Court Judge Malcolm Harrison is a careful man when it comes to talking politics about Mississippi's judicial system.
Harrison served as a Hinds County prosecutor from 1999 until Gov. Haley Barbour appointed him to finish out the judgeship of former Hinds County Circuit Court Judge Bobby DeLaughter last year. DeLaughter left the bench in 2008 and pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators.
Harrison is one of only two African American judges who the Republican governor appointed during his seven-year stint as Mississippi's top executive. When Harrison was president of the Magnolia Bar Association in 2009, he even criticized Barbour for not making any black judicial appointments by that date.
You told me years ago that you got into prosecution because you felt you could put errant youth on the correct path before they move into adulthood, even if that often involved mingling sentences with drug or personality rehabilitation?
That was my mentality, yes.
How will that square with your new job?
What I was doing as a youth court prosecutor was to prosecute, but also to find alternative sentencing methods. As a circuit court judge, however, my job now is to fairly interpret the law and punish individuals who are convicted of breaking the law. We are responsible to the people to hand out punishment. It's different in youth court with youthful offenders whose path you can guide to keep them out of the adult system.
So you can't really profess to being a fan of rehabilitation over prison, when the situation warrants it?
No, my job now is … to clear the court docket and move cases forward. And hand out appropriate sentences when the situation calls for it.
The NAACP says the incarceration for blacks in this state is 3.5 times the incarceration rate of whites.
I don't know why it's like that, and I can't comment on those situations on why the incarceration rate is what it is.
You criticized the governor heavily for not appointing more blacks to judicial posts during his time in office. Do you feel there are more blacks qualified to fill judicial roles than indicated by the number of blacks who actually have judgeships?
I think there are plenty of qualified African Americans who are fit to serve as judges. My appointment shows that the governor did not consider race when appointing judges, that he appointed the most qualified person—and in this case I was the most qualified person.
I've heard the argument from people on Barbour's vetting committee that many of the qualified black attorneys choose instead to focus on private law and making money rather than seeking judgeships.
I haven't heard anything on that as to why it is what it is. You'll have to talk to the people in the committee.
But did you ever get the impression from many of the African American attorneys that they reject public service for more profitable work in the private sector?
I can say this: I had to actually take a pay cut to be a Hinds County Circuit Court Judge. ... I can't say that all African American lawyers forgo public service to make more money in the private sector, but it is true that a pay cut is often involved in the changeover. I'll let other lawyers speak for themselves.
How do you feel about Hinds County's indigent defense system?
Hinds County has some of the most qualified lawyers serving as public defenders. In my court they've always been very professional and they've always done an excellent job of watching their cases and arguing on behalf of their clients. Their only problem is that they always have so many cases, that there aren't enough public defenders to go around.
Do you fear the kind of issues that have affected judges like DeLaughter and attorneys like Dickie Scruggs? And then there's attorney Paul Minor and Judges Wes Teel and John Whitfield who all went to jail ultimately over campaign contributions, possibly not even for clear reasons.
I'm not sure if it will be a difficulty. You've just got to continue to be honest. I have great respect for Judge DeLaughter. Always have. I don't know his situation personally. But I know for me that it's important that I am fair to all parties that come before me, and that I continue to be fair and give no favoritism to anybody because of campaign money.
Don't you worry about your credibility getting attacked for taking campaign favors from either private attorneys or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
If I do the right thing, I can't worry about anybody else.