Opinion: State Supreme Court ignored common sense

Steve Rogers
Staff Writer

I am not a lawyer. The closest I get to that claim is a brother who is one and several friends who are attorneys. So I don’t always understand the nuances of the law.

But I do understand common sense.

And the motion three area judges filed asking the state Supreme Court to reconsider its June 7 ruling allowing people with concealed carry permits to have their guns inside courthouses, but not courtrooms, across the state.

The Supreme Court’s decision stemmed from an order the three Chancery Court judges — Dorothy Colom, Jim Davidson and Kenneth Burns — handed down in 2011 in response to a law approved by the Legislature.

A South Mississippi gun activist took the matter to the Supreme Court, arguing his rights were being violated.

The Supreme Court said the three judges overstepped their bounds and violated the Constitutional separation of powers.

In a direct, and sometimes even emotional 15-page appeal filed last week, the three judges took the bold step of suggesting the Supreme Court justices were the ones who erred and should reconsider their position.

Regardless of what you think about guns or guns in courthouses, the appeal filed by the three judges makes common sense.

While standing and similar issues are important in the law and court decisions, I think they sometimes only confuse the issue. So I won’t get into those technical issues which only took up a small portion of the judges’ appeal.

Instead, I want to touch on what are some salient common sense issues.

That starts with the current law.

As the judges said, in 2011, the Legislature amended the state’s gun laws to allow for concealed carry permits. On April 15, 2016, the Legislature amended those statutes to specifically prohibit the carrying of any weapons in courthouses.

“As the current law by the legislature, it is the latest mandate of the legislature and should be followed,” the local judges argued.

That makes sense.

Some will point out they should have raised that point in their original arguments.

They weren’t allowed to by the Supreme Court. In fact, it its original deliberations, the Supreme Court dramatically narrowed the issues to four questions and banned any discussion outside the scope of those questions.

That doesn’t make sense, especially with an issue of this magnitude.

“Due to the gravity of this opinion being directly contrary to the law o f this State, it must compel this Court to reverse its decision,” Colom, Davidson and Burns argue, citing several state Supreme Court decisions affirming that new laws superseded old ones on the same subject.

“A prohibition against guns in Courthouses is currently the law in this state,” they continue.

In another argument, the local judges say the Supreme Court is the one who failed the separation of powers test. In fact, in its ruling, the Supreme Court weakened the Judicial Branch by basically saying it was relegated to a second tier rather than being equal to the Legislative and Executive branches.

“We agreed that the Sheriff, as the chief law enforcement officer, is the lawful authority to provide courthouse security. However, none of the opinion devoted one word to the fact that the Mississippi Legislature has interfered with the Sheriff's duties and objectivity by enacting legislation that would make him or her pay personally all costs of his/her own defense, without use of public funds. This not only hamstrings the Sheriff unreasonably, but is a direct interference in the executive branch,” the three judges said.

“Providing monetary penalties, without due process, is a direct intrusion into the objectivity of the Sheriff as to what is best for security in his/her county. The Sheriff has the same argument that is applicable to trial judges. We are not arguing for the executive branch, but merely both the Executive and Judicial branches should be equally responsible for courthouse security. If one is shackled, the other should step into that void. If the Sheriff is reluctant to act out of fear of personal expenditure, we, as Judges, must act to insure the efficient administration of justice which is our mandate, separate and distinct under the Mississippi Constitution,” they wrote.

Again, that makes sense. In my civics classes as a child, that partnership among the three branches of government was just as important part of representative democracy as the separation of powers and checks and balances.

“The question must be asked, does the right to keep and bear arms inside a courthouse to a few concealed carriers, trump the authority of this Court as a separate and distinct branch of government? We, as judges, do not legislate. But, our attempts to advance the mandate given us should be respected equally. And what about the constitutional rights of the thousands of citizens who depend on the Courts for safe resolution of their conflicts in a civilized society? Are we actually holding that the rights of a few are more important than the equal rights of the many?” the judges noted.

It makes sense to question why concealed carry rights are broader than those of others. It doesn’t make sense to expand the Second Amendment further to them Han to others. And while no one says it, it almost raises the question of whether races or wealth played a subconscious role in the high court’s opinion since according to most sheriff’s, the majority of concealed carry license holders are white and at least middle class.

“Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited,“ former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in an opinion and requited by the three judges in their appeal.

"...nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings..." The judges wrote, quoting Scalia, as they pointed out that weapons are banned from federal courthouses although we all live under the same U.S. Constitution.

“An important question must be asked, if the constitutional right of concealed carrier is more important than all others and is absolute, why does it stop at the courtroom door? Why, since all constitutional rights are not without limits, does it make sense to stop at the courtroom door any more than our order prohibiting firearms in the courthouse?” The three judges argued in another common sense issue raised in their appeal.

Interestingly, in previous rulings on other issues, the state Supreme Court has ruled judges have “the authority to step outside of the courtroom limitation where the facts of a specific case so warrant."

Furthermore, in another ruling, the Supreme Court ruled, "[u]nder the inherent powers of the courts, the judiciary has authority to administer justice and to ensure the safety of court personnel, litigants and the public."

It only makes common sense to apply that authority to the dynamics of most courthouses in the state which have multiple entrances and where courts and offices are interspersed.

“It is not possible to reach a courtroom in our district without passing through a ‘public’ hallway. Most of the persons who are there for business mill about in the hallways and are usually adjacent to most county offices. This is where the real danger lies as illustrated by the recent incident in the hallway outside the Jackson County Chancery Court,” the local judges noted, stating a basic inarguable fact.

And finally, in an emotional part of the argument, the three judges asked the Supreme Court to remove demeaning language from the June 7 decree.

In that ruling, I was struck not so much by what the majority said but by some of the terms, calling the local order a “proclamation” and accusing hem of being driven by personal “fears.” The “tone”, quite frankly, was inappropriate for a state Supreme Court, almost as if they were speaking to first-year law students, not three judges with decades of experience on the bench.

While it might be an unusual request, it makes sense for the three judges to ask for the offending language to be removed, not only for themselves but also for the integrity of the courts.

Citing a rule of the courts, the judges note ‘any language showing disrespect or contempt for either appellate court will be stricken….’. We understand this Rule is a one way street, but offer it should be applicable to all of our Courts, which must at all times maintain professional standards. We, as trial judges, have developed thick skins and are mature enough to accept disagreement. However, the comparison of our Order to that of granting someone the key to the city by a mayor is both wrong, not based in fact and totally unnecessary. We respectfully ask that the opinion be reissued without the inclusion of.such a denigrating phrase,” they stated.

That makes the most common sense of all.