¶ 15. We recognize the following exception to the Ferrara v. Walters rule:Justice Jess Dickinson, for the Court in Bluewater Logistics, LLC v. Williford, Jan. 27, 2011:Where the chancellor adopts, verbatim, findings of fact and conclusions of law prepared by a party to the litigation, this Court analyzes such findings with greater care, and the evidence is subjected to heightened scrutiny. Because the chancellor erred in adopting FN3 the litigant's findings of facts and conclusions of law in the case sub judice, the deference normally afforded a chancellor's findings of fact is lessened.[FN4]¶ 16. The FFCL proposed by the Joels and the one eventually entered by the court were essentially the same. So we must apply the Brooks v. Brooks heightened-scrutiny standard of review.
¶ 17. Heightened scrutiny requires that “the deference afforded the findings of fact is lessened ...,” and we “must view the challenged findings and the record as a whole ‘with a more critical eye to ensure that the trial court has adequately performed its judicial function.’ ”
¶ 26. When a chancellor adopts verbatim, or nearly verbatim, a party's proposed findings of fact, our precedent provides that we should apply “heightened scrutiny” FN4 to the chancellor's findings of fact. This rule is fairly well-settled and accepted. Yet our precedent provides little guidance as to how we are to comply with our duty to “heighten” our scrutiny--which could be read to require us to review a case more carefully or, perhaps, to apply a different, more stringent standard to our review of the facts.So the question is, I guess, what did Justice Dickinson -- and the majority -- do in Joel that they had forgotten how to do in Williford?
¶ 27. But our duty already requires us carefully to scrutinize every case, so we reject the former. And as to the latter, if “heightened scrutiny” requires us to abandon the reasonable-chancellor standard and apply a different, higher standard, we find no caselaw or other authority explaining that different standard, or suggesting how it should be applied.
Whatever it was, Chief Justice Waller hadn't forgotten it, as his separate opinion in Williford shows. First, he points out that Dickinson and the Court are reaching out to decide an issue not before them:
Bluewater asserted on appeal in Issue I that this Court does not have to give deference to the chancellor's factual findings as the chancellor had adopted verbatim Williford's proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law. The discussion need go no further, as whatever Williford submitted to the trial court is not in the record. Notwithstanding the procedural bar, the majority then goes on to disregard our precedent on the “heightened-scrutiny” standard of review for certain limited decisions that are appealed to this Court. Bluewater did not provide the part of the record needed for us to determine whether a less deferential standard of review would be more appropriate. Miss. R.App. P. 28. All that we have is speculation that the chancellor did something (adopted Williford's findings verbatim) that is not supported in the appellate record before this Court. Therefore, we should find no merit in its argument without further discussion on the subtleties of standards of review.Regardless, Waller manages to remember how this standard works:
Heightened scrutiny refers to appellate review with a heightened “sensitivity to the possibility of error....” In re Estate of Grubbs, 753 So. 2d 1043, 1048 (Miss. 2000). In other words, the Court still defers to the chancellor's findings but with a closer examination of the record. See id.Factual findings by a chancellor are given extremely deferential review -- the chancellor was there and the appellate court was not. But it should not be so mysterious to the Williford Court that where those findings are drafted by one party, it's reading not the chancellor's findings, but one party's view of what the chancellor should have seen. That draft may look right to the chancellor -- weeks or months after the hearing -- and it should not be dismissed out of hand, but the "jaundiced eye" referred to in some case law is appropriate.
¶ 81. I agree with the majority that we must carefully review cases and remain sensitive to errors. Maj. Op. ¶ 27. No one disputes that. However, the issue is what deference chancellors should be afforded in their factual decisions when the record calls into question the independent findings our trial judges are obligated to make. Deferring to a chancellor's factual findings does not mean that we intend to neglect our judicial function. See Ralph Walker, Inc. v. Gallagher, 926 So. 2d 890, 893 (Miss. 2006).
In other words, a majority of the Court (Pierce, to his credit, joined Waller) is willing to shrug and act like Gomer Pyle when handed a bill of goods. It's not enough to say, as the Court smilingly does, that every case is special and scrutinized, because the Court loves all its cases. The fact, plain as the nose on one's face, is that the Court's basis for deference is undercut by the verbatim adoption of factual findings. In particular, credibility determinations, or the weight attributed to some evidence over other evidence, are hugely important, and the Court should not play dumb about the difference between the judge's making that determination himself and signing onto an interested party's determination.
Think of it like this. Two cases are tried to a jury. In one, the jury deliberates in a nearby room immediately after the trial, and comes back with its verdict. In the other, the jurors go home, get on with their lives, and a few weeks later they receive in the mail proposed findings from the opposing parties, which they are free to sign onto, revise, or discard in favor of their own draft. In our example, the jury signs onto one side's PFF verbatim. Are we really supposed to think that the latter verdict is due the same deference as the former? As the Windows Phone commercial has it: "Really?"
... TBA wonders what a chancellor would think of Williford. [UPDATE: I had forgotten that Pierce was a chancellor; interesting that the only chancellor on the MSSC bench concurred w/ Waller.]
... And in comments, we find out! Many thanks to the good judge, whose thoughts I will address in more detail later; for now, I observe only that if every chancery judge were as conscientious as Judge Primeaux, then I would not worry about verbatim adoption of findings.