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Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance v. Harris

Supreme Court of Mississippi, En Banc

December 5, 2013


DATE OF JUDGMENT: 02/22/2013





¶1. In this judicial-misconduct case, Chancellor D. Neil Harris abused his contempt powers, failed to recuse himself from contempt proceedings, and prevented those he charged with contempt from presenting any defense. This Court finds an appropriate sanction to be a public reprimand, a $2, 500 fine, and assessment of the costs of this proceeding in the amount of $200.


¶2. The facts precipitating this judicial-performance complaint are not in dispute. In 2010, the Mississippi Department of Human Services enlisted a private contractor -- utilizing private process servers -- to pursue child-support and paternity proceedings over which Judge Harris presided in the Sixteenth Chancery Court District. While presiding over these cases, Judge Harris obtained information that suggested some of the parties had not been properly served with process and that returns on the summonses were falsified. In response, Judge Harris instituted contempt proceedings against five process-servers, the owner of the private service company, and two notaries public.

¶3. On June 11, 2010, Judge Harris issued show-cause orders and subpoenas for process server Guy Jernigan and notary public Thomas Corey McDonald to appear on June 14, 2010. At that contempt hearing, Judge Harris found Jernigan and McDonald in civil contempt for failing to provide proper service as well as for filing and notarizing improper affidavits. Judge Harris ordered them to appear for sentencing on June 24, 2010.

¶4. At the sentencing hearing, Judge Harris also found Edwin Cheshire -- Jernigan's and McDonald's employer--in civil contempt. Judge Harris imposed monetary sanctions and ordered the three men to write apology letters to the judges of the Sixteenth Chancery Court District. He also enjoined Jernigan and McDonald from serving process or notarizing documents in that district, and he ordered the weekend incarceration of all three men until they purged themselves of contempt. Thereafter, the individuals sought emergency relief from this Court.

¶5. On July 20, 2010, Judge Harris issued additional show-cause orders and subpoenas, this time for process-servers Shane Corr and Chris Lott; for Craig Wells, the owner of a process-serving company; and for notary public David Smith, ordering them to appear on July 27, 2010. At the hearing on July 27, Judge Harris found Corr, Lott, Wells, and Smith guilty of civil contempt for failure properly to serve process, as well as for filing and notarizing improper affidavits. He ordered them to appear on August 17, 2010, for sentencing, and he issued a subpoena for Rick Moon to appear at the sentencing hearing. At the August 17 sentencing hearing, Judge Harris found Lott, Corr, Wells, Smith, and Moon to be in direct criminal contempt, and he sentenced each offender to thirty days' incarceration and a $100 fine.

¶6. On August 24, 2010, Judge Harris issued a show-cause order for process-server Tracey Walker, ordering him to appear on September 24, 2010. At that hearing, Judge Harris found Walker in direct criminal contempt and sentenced him to thirty days in jail and a $1, 000 fine.

¶7. At each show-cause hearing, Judge Harris denied the defendants the procedural protections of due process. Specifically, Judge Harris refused to allow the defendants' attorneys to speak or present a defense in any way. He also failed to recuse himself from any of the hearings, despite the fact that he was the citing judge in all cases.

¶8. On September 9, 2010, this Court denied the emergency relief sought by Jernigan, McDonald, and Cheshire, but found that the individuals should have been cited for constructive criminal contempt rather than civil contempt. We directed Judge Harris to comply with this Court's dictate in Cooper Tire & Rubber Company v. McGill, which held that a person charged with constructive criminal contempt is entitled to procedural safeguards, including the recusal of the citing judge.[1]

¶9. We vacated Judge Harris's orders against Corr, Lott, Wells, Smith, Moon, McDonald, Jernigan, and Cheshire, finding that all of the orders violated the defendants' procedural due-process rights. We remanded those cases to the trial court with orders for Judge Harris to recuse himself, which Judge Harris already had done by the end of September 2010. Tracey Walker's case was not appealed.

¶10. Acting on complaints by David Smith and attorney John M. Colette, the Mississippi C om mission on Judicial Performance instituted the present proceedings by form al com plaint, charging Judge Harris with willful misconduct and conduct detrimental to the administration of justice which brings the judicial office into disrepute in violation of Section 177A of the Mississippi Constitution of 1890 and Canons 1, 2A, 3B(1), 3B(4), and 3(E)(1)(a) of the Mississippi Code of Judicial Conduct. Judge Harris answered the complaint, after an extension of time, on January 10, 2011.

¶11. The Commission and Judge Harris submitted an Agreed Statement of Facts and Proposed Recommendation. The Commission filed its findings and recommendation with this Court, recommending that Judge Harris be publicly reprimanded, fined $2, 500, and assessed costs of this proceeding in the amount of $200.


¶12. This Court has the sole authority to impose sanctions for judicial misconduct.[2] When reviewing a judicial-misconduct complaint, we conduct a de novo review, "giving great deference to the findings, based on clear and convincing evidence, of the recommendations of the Mississippi Com mission on Judicial Performance."[3] When determining an appropriate sanction, we have held that we will conduct "an independent inquiry of the record" and render an independent judgment.[4] But when "the ...

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