Electing Justice: The JFP Interview with Judge Kenny Griffis | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Electing Justice: The JFP Interview with Judge Kenny Griffis

Mississippi Court of Appeals Judge Kenny Griffis has been on the bench for 14 years and decided to run for the Mississippi Supreme Court in District 1 when the seat was up for re-election this year.

Mississippi Court of Appeals Judge Kenny Griffis has been on the bench for 14 years and decided to run for the Mississippi Supreme Court in District 1 when the seat was up for re-election this year. Photo by Imani Khayyam.

Elections for Mississippi Supreme Court justice seats only come up every eight years, so when they do, the money pours in, PACs line up and partisan lines are drawn in the supposedly non-partisan sands. District 1, which contains Hinds, Madison and Rankin counties, as well as a swath of counties in the central part of the state, will elect a justice in November, and their choices are sitting Justice Jim Kitchens and Court of Appeals Judge Kenny Griffis, who is looking to make the jump to the state's highest court. Both candidates agreed to one-on-one interviews to offer insight into their lives, careers and philosophies. (Read Justice Kitchens' interview here.)

Judge Kenny Griffis is no stranger to the bench; he has been on the Court of Appeals for almost 14 years and has six years left of his term. Griffis, a Meridian native, was a CPA before returning to law school at the University of Mississippi and graduating in 1987. He worked as a lawyer in Meridian, and then moved to Ridgeland, primarily in commercial and civil litigation, representing companies, businesses and entrepreneurs, before running for judge in 2002.

He lives in Ridgeland with his wife, Mary Helen and their five sons.

Tell me a little bit about your background in law and the kinds of clients you represented.

I moved to Jackson in September of 1989, and I went to work with the law firm called Ott & Purdy at that time. They were mainly a construction law firm. I wanted to do more advanced practice, and I wanted to deal with businesses and people that were in business, deal with more commercial litigation. I represented not only construction companies but banks, individuals who wanted to start businesses. In fact, I incorporated one of the first Internet corporations in Mississippi. It was called Internet Mississippi Inc., and it was a group of visionary entrepreneurs that saw what was coming. I wanted to help entrepreneurs get started, so I helped a lot of people open their businesses.

In April of 1995 they decided to split up, and I decided to go with a friend of mine and start a small firm called Lingle and Griffis, and I worked there for probably six years, then I got asked to be the legal director at BlueCross BlueShield of Mississippi, and I stayed there for 18 months, and realized that an in-house counsel job was not for me. I put up my solo practice at that point in Ridgeland, and then I ran for the Court of Appeals in 2002. I was elected in a contested race in 2002, and then I've been re-elected twice since then, unopposed.

What made you want to make the jump from Court of Appeals to the Supreme Court?

Well, the Supreme Court is the ultimate decider of cases in Mississippi, so I think there's a desire in all of us to serve at the highest level that we can in a field that we have passion for, and quite frankly, as a lawyer, I can't think of any higher office or opportunity to serve than to serve on the Supreme Court.

I love what I do. I love deciding cases, writing opinions. It's important for us in how we write opinions. Those opinions are applied by lawyers every day, and sometimes they're applied even so as to whether or not the lawyers can take a case or not take a case. I'm well over 8,000 cases I've decided; I think (in) my opinions, I am right at or over 900 majority opinions, (and) I think if you look at my dissenting opinions, I'm around 100.

That's one thing that distinguishes me from my opponent, but I will say that he writes a lot of dissenting opinions, and one thing that I've pushed is that I've learned as an appellate judge is part of what I need to do is listen to what others have to say. I have to be able to discuss and debate with my colleagues in a way that's courteous and respectful, but our job is not simply to write what we feel or what we think.

Our job is to get the law right and keep the law right and make sure it's been applied in the case. And (even) if we may not like what the law says ... our job is to make sure that if the lower court followed the law, we're to affirm it. If they did not follow the law, then we're to correct in what we did.

Why did you write the dissents you've written, were those all instances where you thought the law wasn't being followed by the majority?

That's the way I feel. There are a lot of times that we do have a disagreement as to what the law is. Now on the Court of Appeals, I will say this: There is one difference in the opinions that I write, and that I would write as a member of the Supreme Court. As a member of the Court of Appeals writing an opinion, I do have an audience, and the audience is not only the parties to the lawsuit and the other lawyers, but it's also the Supreme Court. Them being my audience, I am trying to help them get to the right result also.

Sitting on the Supreme Court, your audience, of course, are the parties that are involved, but it's also the members of the bar and trial judges, who watch the way we do things. One of the things we do is give advice, and we decide cases based on legal precedent, how cases before have been tried.

At the Neshoba County Fair, you mentioned there being too many sets of rules for courts. Could you elaborate on that?

I've advocated in this campaign that there are too many rules. When I started, there were seven sets of rules; today there's 21. And my bet is there will be another set of rules by the end of the year. And I think that's too many. I've gone through, and when you look at something with sheer volume, you try to remove the repetition and remove things that are not helpful.

I think all the separate rules also create an access to justice issue because it increases the cost of what lawyers have to do to go to court. When I started, I could be in several courts in one day, and I think today when I talk to lawyers, I get the frustration that we've piled rule upon rule upon rule. So what you have now is you have lawyers that do nothing but domestic relations or nothing but a chancery-court practice, and when a circuit-court matter comes in they say, "No, thank you."

The Supreme Court sets those rules, so what I advocate and what I've pushed for and what I've promised lawyers is that one of the things I'm going to try my best to do is to make sure we take a look at the rules, and if it's not a necessary rule, we get rid of it or we try to streamline the rules, and we make them easier. And I also tell the lawyers this: One of the problems they have is the Supreme Court right now could change the rules every Thursday afternoon. I believe we shouldn't do it—maybe not a good phrase—but willy-nilly like that; we should do it with a schedule. The federal rules change once every two years. I don't think it's asking too much for any lawyer, no matter how young or old, to re-read the rules once every two years.

Let's talk about campaign-finance reform; what reforms would you like to see specifically in the judicial realm?

Judicial or non-judicial, I think we've come of age where we need full disclosure of all campaign contributions. I've talked about real-time reporting, and it can be done a lot of different ways. I think voters want to know, and I think voters have a right to know, and I have no problem with that.

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Judge Kenny Griffis says he will look at streamlining court rules if he is elected to the State's highest court. Photo courtesy Griffis Campaign

For judges, I think there are some other things that can cause problems. I think loans, you know, every time I've ever taken out a loan, I have an expectation of how I'm going to repay it. If I don't have that expectation, it's called stealing (probably not the best use of a word), but I think especially with judges, when we loan our campaigns money, we truly have the expectation that (a) no one is going to help me, and I'm going to have to pay it off myself or (b) if I win this election, some people are going to view me favorably, and they're going to give me campaign contributions, or even see some people have made promises that say, "I don't want my name disclosed before the election, but I want to give you money after the election." I think that's wrong, especially with judicial elections.

I think one of the things that we don't address is what happens with lawyer contributions. You have some lawyers that are all in—they give $5,000, their wife gives $5,000, their secretary gives $5,000, and their dog gives $5,000, and that's legal. I don't see anything wrong with that, but what we've never done is we've never tied the recusal rules to contributions, and I think that needs to be clarified.

I think that campaign finance for judges, at least, should end at or before the end of the election. People should know how much you get and where it's coming from before they elect because, quite frankly, the worst part of running as a judge is the thought of winning and having a fundraiser where people think that they can actually give money, and it will affect the impact of your decision.

I don't see the problem with reporting every month, especially in judicial campaigns. I mean, these races can be significant sums of money. I don't know how you spend money after the election. I don't want to spend money after the election, I don't want to raise money, but I think when you look at loans and being able to raise money and spend money after the election, there's a problem.

/Do you monitor your own campaign-finance records? And are you going to make sure that your contributions stop when the election is over?

I cannot accept or solicit, so I don't accept or solicit campaign funds. I have committee members to do that. That's one of the problems with this is who is the committee? It can be small, it can be large, so the rules are a little fuzzy there. I don't keep up with it day by day; I don't ponder who's giving; I know who's come to my fundraisers, and I know who's been there.

I know that when I ran in 2002, I was fortunate to be able to raise a substantial amount of money in that race, and I think I'm raising a substantial amount today. I'd love to not raise a dime. I might get some of my expenses reimbursed, but I don't have fancy cowboy boots, I don't have a piano or anything like that, what I have is that when people give my committee money, I instruct my committee that we want to use this in a way to get our message out to the voters to give us the best possible opportunity we have so that when people go to the polls, they can know that there's a difference between me and my opponent so when they pull that lever (to vote).

What are your thoughts on the criminal-justice system?

Three years ago, the Legislature came up with a commission (task force) on criminal justice, and the task of the Legislature was, how do we make reforms in our criminal-justice system? I think our country is going through that issue right now: Is our criminal-justice system fair? When you start with that proposition, I believe that we should constantly be looking at improvements in our law. That's what we pay the legislators to do, and I think there's nothing wrong with having a conversation between judges and legislators about problems in the law.

I believe if we're going to have a discussion about criminal-justice reform, I think the (Mississippi) Supreme Court should drive that discussion because, as a Supreme Court justice, I want the district attorney to believe that there's a fair process. I want the criminal defendant's attorney to believe there's a fair process, and I want the trial judge to believe that there is a fair process, and I want all of them to have input into whatever changes or reforms we're to make.

In Mississippi, once we go through that system, and we assume that the prosecutor has brought a valid case, has proven the case, the criminal defendant has got all of their constitutional rights protected, and all the evidence comes back, and the jury decides the person is guilty and should be punished, we send them to incarceration. The Mississippi Department of Corrections spends about $340 million a year trying to incarcerate and rehabilitate. There are some people that are not going to be rehabilitated; there are some that can be.

The Legislature's job is to figure out the programs that we have, to give us what the sentences are and should be, and we give our circuit judges discretion after someone has pled guilty or their guilt has been determined, we give them some discretion to sort it out. Who are we mad at? Who's made a mistake? And who are we scared of? If they've raped, robbed or killed somebody, we're scared of them. We don't want them back out on the streets.

If they've made a mistake, we need a criminal-justice system where, if they made a mistake on Friday night, what can we do to get them to work on Monday morning? Because to go to work, that's how I provide for my kids, that's how I put food on my table, and if we've got a criminal-justice system that works, we're able to sort through who that is, and we're able to get them to work on Monday morning.

I asked my sheriffs this: If I had the power to give you 10 free passes on who to put in jail, do you know the 10 people that need to be in jail? And every sheriff says absolutely, I know the 10 people who are causing the most problems in our society, but that's not how our criminal-justice system works. In order to arrest someone, we've got to have probable cause, we've got to go through the process and put forward evidence, so we go through this whole criminal-justice system.

We've instituted the Mississippi Electronic Courts system, where we're trying to use the federal system to help civil cases work through the system. We need that in criminal cases, and we need communications. We need information from the criminal-justice system that's helping law enforcement officers when they pull someone over and make a stop; they need information. Is this somebody wanted for a double-murder, or is this somebody who's just a normal citizen who's paying their taxes, and maybe they don't have a Hinds County tag because they're going to Jackson State?

I'm always asked, how does somebody get arrested 45 times and not be in jail? And a lot of times, it has to do with some failure along the way before they get to court, whether that be a problem with the arrest, whether that be a problem with the evidence. We want to make sure that people don't fall through the cracks. We've got to shorten the time period between the crime and the judgment day, and we can do that with computers. It takes work, it takes effort, and there again, that's where the Supreme Court comes into play.

What do you think about programs like drug courts, mental health courts and other alternatives that cost less and may lower recidivism rates?

I am a supporter of drug courts for one reason, and that's (that) they work. There are issues, it's not perfect, some people view it as a "get out of jail free" card, some victims don't like it, but drug courts have proven that there are some people involved in the criminal-justice system because they're an addict, and if we can remove the addiction, then we can remove the criminal behavior. That's the obligation that we owe to taxpayers, to make sure we incarcerate who we're supposed to incarcerate.

The best advocate for drug courts are circuit judges, and I've been around long enough to have heard circuit judges complain about drug courts, and now they believe that's the greatest thing that they do, and that's the mission of their life is being involved with drug courts.

I give Chief Justice William Waller credit. He has advocated re-entry courts; we have had some say in talking about people who are incarcerated, that when they get out of Parchman, they have no identification, they have no ability to get out and get a job.

Re-entry courts are an idea that the Chief Justice and District Judge Keith Starrett have advocated. Veterans courts are something that we're taking a look at. We've got the re-entry court commission. This is a great example of the Supreme Court working with the Legislature to come up with alternative programs that not only can rehabilitate the offender but can restore the victim, and through all this process, I want to make clear that I've not thought about the victim because the victim is very important in this, and we want the victim, at the end of the day also when court's over, to believe that justice has been done, and it's hard to balance sometimes because ... the victims are not happy with what has happened; sometimes victims drive it.

One of our big focuses has been on juvenile-justice courts and youth court. How could the system improve?

I know we've got a lot of dedicated professionals. I mean, (Rankin County) Youth Court Judge Tom Broome is a friend of mine; he's an outstanding jurist, and he's dedicated himself to youth court. I'm not sure how closing the Walnut Grove facility is, we understand, maybe I shouldn't say this, but I'll say it anyway, we're not real clear on the legacy of (former MDOC Commissioner) Chris Epps until that entire situation is resolved. (Epps is now under federal indictment and is accused of bribery and conspiracy.)

I believe that the Supreme Court can be the leader and make sure the conversation happens and make sure that we get everybody at the table that needs to get there and that the next generation of youth court laws is fair, works and gives alternative sentencing options to the youth-court judges and youth-court professionals so that we can rehabilitate the offender and restore the victims. (I understand) because with five boys (sons), I mean, everything is not perfect. I know that boys will be boys, and I do believe this, there are often times a youth court is what stands between a young man, and I'm sorry to use a male pronoun, but men commit nine times more crime, but what stands between a young man and a life of crime or a life of incarceration. If we can get to them at an early age and work with educators, and we can have programs that work, but we can't just stack them up and stack them high, and at one time, I think that was the perception of what we were doing. I think we're beyond that.

Interviews have been edited for clarity and length. Both judicial candidates will be on the ballot for the Nov. 8 election, if you live in Supreme Court District 1. For more political coverage visit jfp.ms/2016elections. Email state reporter Arielle Dreher at [email protected].

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