Mississippi Supreme Court is ignoring juries: Victims losing 100 percent of appeals?

Alex A. Alston Jr.     Special to The Clarion-Ledger    June 29, 2008Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Jim Smith, speaking recently to various business groups, stated emphatically that the court strives to be fair and impartial to large corporations and insurance companies. That is commendable.
But what about the victims of corporate fraud and negligence? Can this Supreme Court be fair to them? Apparently not.

If you are a victim of personal injury, malpractice or corporate fraud, you have almost no chance of having a jury verdict in your favor affirmed by the state Supreme Court.

In the past, the Supreme Court rarely overturned a jury verdict, especially if it was based on a dispute over a factual issue. That day is gone. During the past 4 1/2 years, according to my research, an astonishing 88 percent of all jury verdicts in favor of the wronged victims have been reversed by the state Supreme Court.
But what about the jury trials won by defendants, in which the victim takes an appeal to correct an error? Here, again, the numbers are staggering.

Over the same 4 1/2-year-period, a plaintiff’s success rate in reversing a jury verdict for the defendant is an astonishing zero.

The defendant corporation, hospital, or insurance company prevailed in 100 percent of these cases. It is difficult to imagine victims of negligence and fraud losing 100 percent of the time, but that is the way it is in the state Supreme Court in a plaintiff’s appeal.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and insurance companies should be ecstatic over this state of affairs. Think of the money it saves the insurance companies not to pay a claim, knowing they are safe with the state Supreme Court.

But the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a lobbying arm of Big Business which pours millions into judicial campaigns, is still not satisfied. In a recent 37-page report, entitled Lawsuit Climate 2008, the Chamber ranks Mississippi as the 48th worst legal climate in the nation.

Therefore, one can expect the Chamber and its powerful allies to pour millions more into the judicial campaigns of our Supreme Court justices coming up for election in November to close any chance of victory for a poor maimed victim who has successfully worked his way through the judicial system to the Supreme Court. It is only then that these powerful entities will have a complete victory over anyone bold enough to think he has a claim for negligence or fraud.

How can it be that during the last 4 1/2 years powerful corporations, hospitals, and insurance companies have prevailed in the state Supreme Court in nearly every case? Can an injured plaintiff ever be right?

Perhaps it is because we elect our Supreme Court justices. In the 2002 election, insurance companies, large corporations, and doctors poured millions of dollars into the campaign coffers of most of the justices. One of the new judges that year alone received over a million dollars from these sources.

Can anyone truly doubt that judges will, either consciously or unconsciously, favor those who have contributed substantially to their campaigns.

In the upcoming election, large corporations, which statistically are more likely to be named as defendants, will not forget those justices who ruled in their favor against an injured or defrauded plaintiff, and no doubt substantial contributions will flow to these faithful.

Is there anything we can do? Yes, we can get involved in the election.
Beware of any judge running on a campaign that he or she is going to “slam the jailhouse door on criminals” or is going to be “tough on crime.” As Luther Munford stated in his May 24 guest column (“The Mississippi Supreme Court already is ‘tough on crime’”), “the court already has that one covered” with the Supreme Court affirming 93 percent of all criminal cases.

But you should know that the Supreme Court has nothing to do with locking up criminals. That is the job of the prosecutors and lower court judges.
The sole purpose of the Supreme Court is to determine whether the defendant received a fair and impartial trial in the lower courts.

In the past, the Supreme Court has held the moral high ground by overturning convictions based on torture, violations of the Constitution and due process, thus saving many an innocent defendant from the noose.

Somehow the court seems to have lost its way. If the percentage of affirmance on criminal appeals creeps any higher from the 93 percent we have today, there would be no need for a supreme court. A clerk could simply rubber stamp all guilty verdicts “affirmed.”

Voters should be wary of Supreme Court candidates who insist that they have been especially fair to large corporations and insurance companies.

These are the justices who are now making it almost impossible for a victim to prevail in the Supreme Court, even after a jury verdict is rendered in the victim’s favor.

Probably the best indication of how a Supreme Court justice will rule is the source of the political contributions he or she receives.

One can find contribution lists in the office of the secretary of state and on its Web site.

If powerful corporations and insurance companies have financed a justice’s campaign, you would not be far off in guessing that his or her rulings will most likely be in favor of his donors.

If, on the other hand, the donors contributing are from plaintiff groups, one could reasonably guess that the judge would have inclinations in that direction.
Mississippians should not have to be concerned about whether contributions to a judge will cause that judge to rule a certain way.

He takes an oath to be fair and impartial to all regardless of the parties’ status and he should simply follow the law. Nothing short of that is acceptable.

Our entire judicial system is built on a “rule of law.” In other words, it makes no difference whether you are a prince or a pauper, the law must be precisely the same for all.

A court that substitutes its opinion for that of a jury, or simply decides a case for the benefit of a favored party, tears the basic fabric of our judicial system to shreds. If the rule of law is not followed, the entire foundation of our judicial system is undermined.

The public has a right to expect the Supreme Court to follow the rule of law and decide the cases before it fairly and impartially without favor to any party regardless of status, race, creed or color.

Elections are just around the corner. Four of the sitting Supreme Court justices have qualified to run.

Should we not demand that each of them follow the rule of law?
Certainly it is a fair question to ask why 88 percent of the time, the court reverses a jury verdict for a plaintiff and substitutes its own opinion, and why, in 100 percent of the cases involving an injured victim’s appeals from a jury verdict in favor of a defendant, the court finds for the wealthy or powerful defendant.

Our court must be more than a rubber stamp for the rich and powerful.
Shouldn’t we expect that and more?


Jackson attorney Alex A. Alston Jr. has litigated hundreds of cases, primarily for defendant corporations, over the past 44 years, including scores of cases argued before the Mississippi Supreme Court, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and other circuits, and the U.S. Supreme Court. He has served as president of the Mississippi Bar and has taught and written extensively on issues of trial advocacy. He is the co-author of an upcoming book, Immune to Prosecution: The Long Road to Justice in Mississippi.

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