Mississippi has had a different court system under each of its four constitutions. Frequently changed were the method of judicial selection, the number of judges, and even the names of the courts. Harder to discern but perhaps more important are the changes in the kinds of cases that have dominated the dockets of the courts and the judicial philosophies that have controlled them.
The 1817 Mississippi Constitution provided that the “judicial power of this state shall be vested in one supreme court, and such superior and inferior courts of law and equity as the Legislature may, from time to time, direct and establish.” The legislature determined that there would be four superior (trial) court districts, each with one judge. A fifth district was added in 1822. The legislature authorized the superior court judges to sit twice a year in Natchez as the Supreme Court. Any two superior court judges could resolve an appeal, though the judge who had presided over a trial was ineligible.
The judges were elected by the legislature and served for life, though few remained that long. Twenty superior court judges served during the fourteen years that this court system existed, with an average service of a little more than three years. The first judge elected was William Bayard Shields, who quickly resigned because he was appointed as a federal judge.
In 1824 the Supreme Court boldly declared a state statute unconstitutional. The legislature at its next session ordered the judges to appear and explain why they should not be removed from office. Though an investigation occurred, the court continued.
The 1832 constitution made Mississippi the first state where voters elected all judges. The new constitution created the High Court of Errors and Appeals with three justices. The first justices, elected in May 1833, were William L. Sharkey, who became chief justice, and associate justices Daniel Wright and Cotesworth Pinckney Smith. After staggered-length initial terms, all had six-year terms. In 1839 the entire state was divided into northern, central, and southern districts, a basic configuration that persists today.
A 1836 constitutional amendment required the high court to sit in Jackson. The newly constructed Capitol opened in 1839, and the court had its own courtroom in the center of the building. Many suits involved land, banks, bonds, and railroads. Numerous cases from 1830 to 1860 involved slavery.
Among the most important cases the high court decided concerned the state’s 1838 purchase of a substantial amount of stock in a new state bank. Bonds, backed by the credit of the state, were sold to fund the purchase. The bank failed, and in 1842 the legislature repudiated the bonds. In an 1852 decision, State v. Johnson, the court ruled that the bonds remained a valid debt of the state.
During the disruptions of the Civil War, only nineteen cases were decided, but the court began meeting more regularly by November 1865. An October 1866 case, Ex parte Lewis, received nationwide attention. Lewis, a black Union soldier from Maryland who remained in Mississippi at the end of the war, had kept his gun, violating an 1865 state statute declaring that blacks could not possess firearms. However, that statute violated the 1866 federal Civil Rights Act. Lewis petitioned Mississippi chief justice Alexander Hamilton Handy for release from jail, but Handy issued a lengthy opinion finding the state statute valid and the Civil Rights Act unconstitutional. The US military commander ignored the Lewis ruling. The state courts were further thwarted when civilians were tried in military courts. In October 1867 all three high court justices resigned to protest military rule, and the US Army commander named three new judges. Three decades later, the court in Lusby v. Kansas City Railroad invalidated all decisions issued during the two years when military commanders appointed the judges.
The 1869 Constitution replaced the elected high court with an appointed supreme court. The governor nominated justices, and the Senate confirmed them for nine-year terms. The new court had to address the effects of secession and defeat, ruling on agreements to pay debts in Confederate money and the validity of state laws passed during the war. Taxation and regulation of large corporations, including railroads, were also new and recurring controversies. Significant post-Reconstruction justices included J. A. P. Campbell (1876–94), Tim Cooper (1881–96), Thomas Woods (1889–1900), and Albert Whitfield (1894–1910).
The 1890 constitution did not change the number of Supreme Court justices or their method of selection. It did authorize onerous limits on suffrage with the goal of disfranchising African Americans. In 1896 the court upheld these limits in Dixon v. State. Another new provision barred leasing convicts for farmwork or other labor. Politically powerful landowners found a way around the law, and their subterfuge was sustained in Henry v. State (1906).
In 1903, with the opening of the new Mississippi State Capitol, the court moved to ornate new chambers in that building and remained there until 1973, when the Carroll Gartin Justice Building opened. A second building by that name built behind the first one opened in 2008 for the Supreme Court and the court of appeals.
A 1916 constitutional amendment doubled the size of the court to six justices and made the judgeships elective. Among the important justices of the first half of the twentieth century were Sydney Smith (1909–48), Eugene O. Sykes (1916–25), George Ethridge (1917–41), and Virgil Griffith (1929–49). These justices faced new issues dealing with automobiles, Prohibition, and the validity of various relief measures during the Great Depression.
One of the biggest political controversies the court faced was in a 1922 decision, Aetna Insurance Co. v. Robertson. The state revenue agent brought suit against many national insurance companies under the state antitrust laws, and the trial court returned a judgment in the state’s favor equal to half of that year’s budget. On appeal, Chief Justice Smith set aside the judgment because the alleged violations had been unchallenged for more than a decade.
In Brown v. State (1935), Justice Griffith wrote one of the most noteworthy dissents in the court’s history when Chief Justice Smith cited errors by the defense attorney to sustain the admission of confessions beaten out of three black men accused of murder. A year later, the US Supreme Court agreed with Griffith and reversed the decision.
The civil rights struggle came to the fore by the late 1940s. While desegregation cases were brought in federal court, the state court faced civil rights issues in criminal appeals. Willie McGee, a black man, was sentenced to death for the 1945 rape of a white woman. Bella Abzug, a New York attorney and later a member of the US House of Representatives, came to Mississippi to defend him. The Mississippi Supreme Court reversed his first two convictions but affirmed a third conviction in 1949. The defense had offered evidence that the woman had been engaged in an affair with the defendant. Justice Harvey McGehee was quoted as saying that such a suggestion was insulting.
In 1952 the Supreme Court was increased from six justices to nine. Leadership was provided by McGehee (1937–64; chief justice, 1949–64), Percy Lee (1950–66; chief justice 1964–66), William N. Ethridge (1952–71; chief justice, 1966–71), Robert Gillespie (1954–77; chief justice, 1971–77), and Neville Patterson (1964–86; chief justice 1977–86).
The court followed the directions of the Warren Court on expanded rights for criminal defendants. A personal injury lawsuit revolution began, from product liability to other claims.
Chief Justice Patterson oversaw significant changes to the administration of the court system. The court entered a May 1981 order claiming sole power to adopt rules of procedure for all the state courts. Almost all other states and the federal courts recognize the legislative branch’s right to a substantial role in the process.
A further reordering of power among the branches occurred in Alexander v. State ex rel. Allain (1983). In an opinion written by Chief Justice Patterson with the aid of Justice James L. Robertson, the court found that legislators’ historic practice of serving on executive branch boards violated the separation of powers.
Beginning in the mid-1990s, court elections centered on whether Mississippi had become a haven for frivolous personal injury suits. Justice Chuck McRae, an advocate for plaintiffs, clashed publicly with business-oriented justices and was defeated in 2002. What many observers perceived as a plaintiff-oriented court in the 1990s has changed so much that it is now often considered precisely the opposite. Chief Justice Jim Smith was defeated in 2008, perhaps because of such perceptions.
Among the trailblazers on the Supreme Court was Billy Ethridge, wheelchair-bound from childhood polio, who was appointed to the court in 1952. Lenore Prather was appointed the first female justice in 1982 and became the first female chief justice sixteen years later. The first African American, Reuben Anderson, was appointed in 1985. The first Republican to serve in the twentieth century, Jim Smith, elected in 1992, was also the last, since judicial elections became nonpartisan two years later.
- Frank E. Everett Jr., in History of Mississippi (1973)
- Meredith Lang, Defender of the Faith: The High Court of Mississippi, 1817–1875 (1977)
- Dunbar Rowland, Courts, Judges, and Lawyers of Mississippi, 1798–1935 (1935)
- Herbert Shapiro, White Violence and Black Response: From Reconstruction to Montgomery (1988)
- John Ray Skates Jr., A History of the Mississippi Supreme Court, 1817–1948 (1973)
- Leslie H. Southwick, Mississippi Law Journal (Winter 2002), Mississippi Law Journal (Spring 1996), Mississippi College Law Review (Fall 1997)