For the first time, Lafayette County will elect a judge for a new court
There is a new judicial position on the November ballot here in Lafayette: County Court Judge. Lafayette County will be the twenty-third county (out of eighty-two) in Mississippi to have a “County Court.” Only counties that have population over 50,000 people have a county court, and Lafayette County just hit that mark with the 2020 census.
The County Court is a mid-level state trial court, between the local courts and the courts assigned to multiple counties at the same time. The County Court carries a heavy case load and the County Court Judge election is important for lawyers and citizens alike. So let’s talk courts.
The most local of all the courts are the Justice (County) and Municipal (City) Courts. This is where you go for speeding tickets, DUIs, cases about fist fights, broken windows, neighbor disputes—important cases when you are involved.
The Justice Court handles civil cases for money up to $3,500 and citations and tickets issued by the Sheriff’s Department, UPD, and the Highway Patrol.
Municipal Court handles citations and tickets issues by City of Oxford Police. Both Courts handle initial criminal appearances and hearings to review law enforcement arrests.
The classic “trial level” courts in Mississippi are Circuit Courts and Chancery Courts.
Circuit Courts handle criminal cases and civil (lawsuits about money) cases, and our Circuit Court sits in the big white courthouse in the center of The Square.
Chancery Courts handle family law cases, property cases, estates and trusts, and Youth Court; and our Chancery Court sits in the courthouse across from Heartbreak Coffee.
Circuit and Chancery Courts operate in multi-county districts. The name “circuit” comes from the fact that the Judge would have to ride from county to county, riding the “circuit,” if you will. Lafayette County shares its Circuit Court with six other counties and its Chancery Court with five counties. These Courts are not “open” in Lafayette County every day because they have other counties to cover. Circuit and Chancery Courts must divide up their time between counties as equally as possible considering the case load of each county. As a county’s population gets bigger and bigger, that county’s case load gets bigger and bigger, and in comes County Court to the rescue!
The County Court sits and works in one county, all day, every day, and carries some of the work load otherwise handled by Justice, Municipal, Circuit, and Chancery Courts. The long and short of it is that the County Court handles, or can handle if asked, everything in the middle—the day-to-day cases and hearings that keep justice flowing. County Court can handle lawsuits about money—your car wrecks, slip-and-fall, breach of contract, business disputes—as long as the amount at issue does not exceed $200,000.
The plan is that these medium-exposure suits can get resolved faster in County Court with one Judge than they would in Circuit Courts with Judges assigned to a half-dozen counties.
County Courts also handle criminal cases. The Circuit Court can pick criminal cases to transfer to County Court if it is not a “capital” offense (an offense punishable by death or life in prison). County Courts can handle “bond” issues, the amount of money you must pay to get out of jail after arrest, and County Courts can issue search warrants—give law enforcement the authority to search a person or a person’s property.
County Courts can preside over pre-trial evidentiary hearings and motions in criminal cases, for example, whether or not law enforcement had probable cause to pull you over and search your car for drugs. On the Chancery Court side of things, the County Court Judge is the Youth Court Judge. I have been the Lafayette County Youth Court Defender for several years, and I cannot over emphasize how important Youth Court is to our county—shout out (do people still say “shout out”?) to our long-serving Youth Court Judge, David Bell, who will be replaced by the elected County Court Judge. If you know Judge Bell, please thank him for years of service to the children and families of Lafayette County.
Youth Court manages the cases brought by the Child Protective Services about neglected and abused children. The Youth Court Judge is supposed to create a plan to fix the situation, educate the parents, connect them with resources, and keep the family intact and make tough decisions about termination of parental rights and adoption if the parents do not clean up their act. Youth Court also handles kiddie criminal court, when crimes are committed by someone under 18 years old. If you care about the children of Lafayette County then you should care about Lafayette County’s County Court judicial election.
There are about six hundred people running for County Court Judge. I exaggerate, but it seems like it to me because I know all of them and see most of them on a day-to-day basis. I cannot make any recommendations. I encourage you to do your research, ask your friends, reach out to the candidates, and ask questions.
The new County Court Judge is “our” Lafayette County Judge. We will not share them with any other county. The County Court is known for being the work-horse court of the County’s judicial system taking the day-to-day cases that might be more routine but are as important as a Supreme Court case when your family is involved. I hope this article encourages you to educate yourself and vote.