Thursday, March 10, 2011

Jennings v. Patton

The Fifth Circuit has reversed and rendered in the case of James Jennings, Jr. v. Judge Houston Patton of Hinds County Court. The underlying facts are recounted in the opinion, and one can also read the MSSC's summary of the Bar complaint tribunal's factual findings in the matter of Keith Shelton, Jennings's attorney. Essentially, the civil suit proposed that Patton and Ed Peters had conspired to get Jennings arrested and indicted on false grounds.

District Judge Tom Lee had dismissed the case vs. Peters on immunity grounds but held that an issue of fact existed as to whether Patton lied to the D.A.'s office and denied immunity on that basis. The Fifth Circuit reversed because it found it puzzling that Judge Lee would find anything unconstitutional in what Patton was alleged to've done:
Indeed, even taking the facts in the light most favorable to Jennings, we do not see how, based on our precedents, Jennings has alleged a cognizable constitutional violation. To begin with, “there [i]s no Fourteenth Amendment ‘liberty interest’ or substantive due process right to be free from criminal prosecution unsupported by probable cause.” [Citing cases.] * * *

Nor has Jennings raised a claim actionable under the Fourth Amendment. We have held that “causing charges to be filed without probable cause will not without more violate the Constitution.” [Citing more cases.]

Because Jennings has failed to allege the deprivation of an actual constitutional right, Judge Patton is entitled to qualified immunity.
Wow, that old Constitution isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Eyes must now turn to the Mississippi Bar. As Justice Dickinson wrote:
Shelton's proposed findings of fact with supporting evidence represent only Shelton's view and interpretation of the evidence. However, once they were adopted in toto by the Bar, Shelton's findings of fact took on new significance. The Bar, in substance, represented to this Court that it not only adopted Shelton's factual submission, but also that the Bar had taken reasonable and necessary steps to satisfy itself that they were, in fact, true. In that regard, I finding it amazing that the Bar would agree with the numerous and serious allegations of wrongful conduct by Judge Patton without taking the necessary steps to obtain Judge Patton's testimony and response to Shelton's allegations.

Furthermore, the Bar adopted the following as one of its findings of fact:

Although the reasons [Shelton's] case was presented to the grand jury still are a mystery to Mr. Taylor, one theory of Mr. Taylor's is that Mr. Shelton and Jennings “were indicted on a dare. This was on occasion done during the tenure of the previous District Attorney, Ed Peters.”

As with Judge Patton, I find it equally amazing that the record reflects no effort by the Bar to obtain Peters's testimony and response to such a serious allegation.
If the past is any indication of the future, what the Bar and the JPC will do is, exactly nothing.

The existence of qualified and judicial immunity means that the courts cannot hold judges to a higher standard as their position deserves; they are indeed held to a lower standard. The disciplinary bodies have a duty to raise the standard. They appear to be a failure. If the Mississippi Bar were abolished tomorrow, it's difficult to see that the legal profession in this state would suffer.

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