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Mississippi Meltdown: How the Mississippi Supreme Court Cowered From Justice

In an earlier entry in these pages, I wrote about the Sears Roebuck v. Learmonth case. There, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, a federal appellate court, asked the Mississippi Supreme Court to answer the question of whether Mississippi’s $1 million cap on noneconomic damages violated the Mississippi constitution. In the case the jury rendered a verdict in the amount of $4 million, well in excess of the cap. The jury was not asked to break down its number into economic and noneconomic categories. The parties stipulated that, based on the evidence presented on economic losses, the non-economic award was over $2 million, again well in excess of the cap. With that, the issue was ripe for the Mississippi Supreme Court’s consideration. But it wasnt to be.

The Mississippi Supreme Court, faced with confronting a law that could not be sustained on constitutional principles, was likewise faced with rendering a decision that would upset the power elite, those big business, big insurance, big money interests who covet damage caps as a means of avoiding accountability. The powerful, political interests detest juries for the power that the common man and woman can have over big business and health care industry wrongdoers. The bug business lobby’s direct hit on the jury system was to remove the jury’s power, and replace it with legislation that limits what any jury can do in any case. No matter the evidence, no matter the jury, the most that a plaintiff can recover in non-economic damages is $1 million.

The Mississippi Supreme Court, if it faced the music, would have to overturn this law as an unconstitutional deprivation of the plaintiff’s unfettered right to a jury trial and an unconstitutional infringement by the legislative branch of government into the province of the judicial branch of government (a violation of the constitution’s separation of powers). So, what did the Court do?

It punted. It cowered from taking the issue head on. Instead, it ruled last month that it did not have to accept the stipulation or the common sense reading of the Learmonth case with regard to the amount of damages. It refused to accept the obvious fact that the non-economic award exceeded the cap. So, on a technicality, the Supreme Court weaseled its way out of a decision on the merits.

Why? Politics. Mississippi is the state where supreme court justice Oliver Diaz was attacked by big business interests as soft on crime. He was later indicted regarding issues relating to his political campaign against these big business interests. Twice. And found not guilty twice. But he lost his re-election bid and was replaced by a tort reformer. Mississippi elects their Supreme Court justices as if they were candidates for the legislature or the executive branch. Too often, you get what you pay for in politics. And in Mississippi, as in all states where supreme court justices are elected, what that means is a judicial branch as corrupted by politics as the other two. Where politics encroach upon the judicial branch, the independence of the judiciary is the first casualty. The second casualty is equal justice under law. The third casualty are our constitutional rights.

In the Learmonth case, with regard to damage caps, the Court owed the state of Mississippi, not to mention the United States Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit and the parties in the case, an answer. Either way, an independent court should be free to answer the federal court’s question yes or no. By cowering from its obligation, the Mississippi Supreme Court disappointed us all. It can only be explained by politics, and that is a shame for our system of justice, and a black eye for our democracy.

For a copy of the opinion, click here.