“Transparency in government is critical to its integrity.”
That may have been Phil Bryant’s most iconic statement as a politician. You see, transparency lets light into the often dim recesses of government exposing decisions and actions to the public, and not all politicians welcome that light.
Bryant uttered these words on May 22, 2012, when he signed House Bill 211, the “Sunshine Act,” governing state agency hiring of outside legal counsel.
Moving toward transparency and integrity has been a long struggle in Mississippi. The open meetings act to ensure “that public business be performed in an open and public manner” became law in 1976 following years of struggle. Many public bodies still try to avoid that light.
In 1979 Lt. Gov. Evelyn Gandy pushed through the law establishing the state Ethic’s Commission but only because of the sensationalism of the Bill Burgin scandal.
The public records act granting the public access to government records became law in 1983.
While amendments have altered some transparency provisions, for the most part this journey has led to greater and greater transparency in Mississippi government.
So, it came as a surprise to read the Mississippi Supreme Court may be moving in the opposite direction by weakening its Canon 5F of the Code of Judicial Conduct.
“Under changes recently made by a majority of the Mississippi Supreme Court, the public could receive less information about findings of unethical behavior during judicial campaigns,” wrote Emily Wagster Pettus for the Associated Press.
With no explanation, a majority of the court revamped the committee overseeing judicial election activities and restricted its ability to inform the public about campaign finance abuses. It further prohibited the committee from intervening in egregious cases where the original committee was designed to intervene.
In an unusual move, presiding Justice Leslie King wrote a strong dissent saying, “Today, the Court’s majority lowers its expectations of the need for ethical conduct in judicial elections by the candidates and by third parties, and it thumbs its nose at the public’s right to expect and observe ethical judicial elections.”
King noted the revised committee is restricted to giving advisory opinions and may no longer intervene by issuing cease-and-desist orders. Such orders have themselves been matters of controversy.
He also pointed out that there was no public comment period prior to adopting the rule change abandoning the court’s usual practice.
This comes as partisan third party involvement and expenditures in non-partisan judicial elections have surged and a long-time Republican politician was named Director of the Administrative Office of Courts. One long-time court observer called this a Republican takeover.
Hmmm. The non-transparent manner of this decision does give rise to skepticism.
Perhaps the next time you see Justices Michael Randolph, Kenneth Griffis, Dawn Beam, Robert Chamberlin, David Ishee, and James Maxwell campaigning for re-election you might ask them why they voted for this.
“Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed” – John 3:20.
» BILL CRAWFORD is a syndicated columnist from Jackson.