Mississippi Supreme Court Overturns Order Stifling SPLC Advocacy

The Mississippi Supreme Court has ruled that a juvenile court judge cannot punish the Southern Poverty Law Center for its advocacy on behalf of a youth facing incarceration at the state's juvenile prison. 

The order overturned sanctions imposed by the judge on the youth's SPLC lawyers for their court pleadings and also reversed the judge's finding of delinquency against the 15-year-old boy, known in court papers as "C.B."

Harrison County Youth Court Judge Michael Ward ordered sanctions and fines against the lawyers, their client and his mother after SPLC attorneys Vanessa Carroll and Sheila Bedi filed motions seeking the youth's release pending the appeal of his case. The judge said the motions were "duplicative" and claimed they were an "attempt to backdoor" C.B.'s release from custody.

Judge Ward threatened to ramp up the sanctions. "The next time the Southern Poverty Law Center will be sanctioned one thousand dollars, and then it will go up and so you can call over there to Montgomery and let them know that if you keep filing these duplicative motions and tying up this court, and tying up the clerk, and tying up transport, that they are going to be paying a lot of money," he said. "So let Morris [Dees] know that."

In its June 17 ruling, the state Supreme Court concluded that "reasonable diligence in the zealous representation of a juvenile is not a viable basis for either contempt or Rule 11 sanctions."  

Judge Ward adjudicated C.B. a delinquent for burglary of a dwelling, despite no indication that he ever entered the home, and committed him to the state's Oakley Training School with a recommendation that he not be released until his 18th birthday. The Supreme Court ruled that there was insufficient evidence to warrant the ruling.

The SPLC has a longstanding commitment to protecting children trapped in the juvenile justice system and is working with grassroots organizations, local governments and the state legislature to achieve systemic reforms.

"Beyond the fact that our client did not commit the burglary in question, this ruling is important because it affirms that youths in Mississippi have the right to a zealous legal defense," Bedi said.

In the past, Mississippi youth court judges could send youths to a state training school for minor offenses. Since July 1, however, new legislation – supported by the SPLC – requires that youths can only be sent to the juvenile prison for committing a felony or three or more misdemeanor crimes.