Donaldson v. Cotton, 2020-CA-00581-SCT

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Mississippi
Citation336 So.3d 1099
Docket Number2020-CA-00581-SCT
Parties John I. DONALDSON, County Prosecutor for Yazoo County, Mississippi v. Honorable Mary B. COTTON, County Court Judge/Youth Court Judge of Yazoo County
Decision Date07 April 2022

336 So.3d 1099

John I. DONALDSON, County Prosecutor for Yazoo County, Mississippi
v.
Honorable Mary B. COTTON, County Court Judge/Youth Court Judge of Yazoo County

NO. 2020-CA-00581-SCT

Supreme Court of Mississippi.

April 7, 2022


ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT: BARRY STUART ZIRULNIK, Jackson

ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE: MARY BARNETTE COTTON, Yazoo City

BEFORE KITCHENS, P.J., MAXWELL AND CHAMBERLIN, JJ.

KITCHENS, PRESIDING JUSTICE, FOR THE COURT:

336 So.3d 1102

¶1. Judge Mary B. Cotton, the Yazoo County Youth Court Judge, ordered Attorney John Donaldson,1 first verbally then by written order dated April 3, 2020, to prepare the court's orders for youth court matters. Donaldson refused to abide by Judge Cotton's order of April 3, 2020. As a result, Judge Cotton determined that Donaldson was in contempt of court and she entered an order of contempt, fining Donaldson for his past and continuing refusal to draft the youth court orders.

¶2. Donaldson now appeals the order of contempt. He argues that Judge Cotton lacked authority to order him to prepare orders for youth court matters. He maintains that preparing orders is the responsibility of the judicial staff and that he was under no legal obligation to do so. Donaldson argues also that the order of contempt violated his due process rights.

¶3. This Court finds that a youth court judge has the inherent authority to order a county prosecutor to prepare orders in youth court matters. We find also that Donaldson's alleged contempt is constructive criminal contempt and that his due process rights were violated. Therefore, the Court vacates the order of contempt and remands the case for further proceedings.

STATEMENT OF THE FACTS

¶4. Before taking the bench, Judge Cotton had served as the Yazoo County prosecutor. Judge Cotton asserts in her brief that "[u]pon learning she was unopposed in the election to the position of County Court/Youth Court Judge, Judge Cotton reached out to [Donaldson] regarding the possibility of his accepting the position as County/Youth Court Prosecutor to fulfill Judge Cotton's unexpired term in that position." She goes on to say that she explained to Donaldson the responsibilities of the position, including "the fact that the County/Youth Court Prosecutor in Yazoo County was responsible for drafting the Orders following certain Youth Court hearings." Donaldson agreed to accept the position, and he was appointed by the county's board of supervisors in January 2019. Judge Cotton began serving as the Yazoo County youth court judge in January 2019.

¶5. Immediately after Donaldson was appointed, he received training in the use of the youth court's MYCIDS (Mississippi Youth Court Information Delivery System) computer program regarding the preparation of court orders. Even though Donaldson participated in MYCIDS training, Judge Cotton did not require him to prepare orders immediately and gave him additional time to learn to use and familiarize himself with the MYCIDS system. Judge Cotton reminded Donaldson several times during 2019 that preparing orders would be his responsibility in the future.

¶6. On December 17, 2019, Judge Cotton verbally ordered Donaldson to begin preparing the orders of the youth court starting the next month. Specifically Judge Cotton directed him to prepare the orders for all delinquency cases beginning in January 2020 and then to prepare the orders for all abuse and neglect cases beginning in March 2020.

¶7. On January 16, 2020, Donaldson responded by sending Judge Cotton a letter in which he declined to follow the judge's verbal order to prepare the orders for certain youth court matters because he

336 So.3d 1103

"simply do[es] not have time nor desire to do something that [he] do[es] not believe that should be in [his] job description as Yazoo County's Prosecuting Attorney." Donaldson argued that, based on statutory requirements and opinions of other prosecutors and the attorney general's office, his "duties end upon adjudication and disposition" and "[t]hey do not include any clerical work beyond that point." For support, Donaldson cited an attorney general opinion to the effect that "paperwork necessary for taking a juvenile into custody and disposition of a case should be done by youth court staff, hired by the judge and paid by the county, out of the court budget, as provided for in Sec. 43-21-119." Miss. Att'y Gen. Op., No. 96-0829, 1996 WL 744342, Harkey , at *2 (Dec. 16, 1996). Donaldson included copies of Mississippi Code Sections 43-21-119 and 43-21-123, opining that those statutes "provide that you, as Youth Court Judge, or your designee, are responsible for appointing sufficient staff, including clerical, hired by you and paid by the county out of funds allocated in the court's budget."

¶8. In response to Donaldson's letter, Judge Cotton requested an opinion from the attorney general, asking whether a "Youth Court Prosecutor is responsible for preparing the orders issued by the youth court in the prosecution of a juvenile delinquent." Miss. Att'y Gen. Op., No. 2020-00020, 2020 WL 755928, Cotton , at *1 (Jan. 31, 2020). The attorney general issued its opinion on January 31, 2020. At first, the attorney general's office had declined to answer, saying that its opinions are not to be used "to advise one public officer about another public officer's duties and responsibilities." Id. But the attorney general's office went on to address the question of "who is responsible for the preparation of the orders of the Youth Court[?]" Id. Relying on the Harkey opinion, the attorney general's office concluded that "[a]ny paperwork for ‘taking a juvenile into custody and disposition of a case’ is the responsibility of the youth court staff which is hired by the judge and paid by the county out of the court's budget." Cotton , 2020 WL 755928, at *2. The Cotton opinion also included a footnote that said:

Though finding the Judge to be ultimately responsible for the issuance of his orders, this office further opined that, "the Circuit Judge may, in his discretion, require a clerk, administrator, attorney, or other individual involved in the criminal court process to draft and present a court order for the judge's signature, in order for the action to be properly recorded among the court's minutes.["]

Id. n.1 (quoting Miss. Att'y Gen. Op., No. 2001-0219, 2001 WL 523505, Johnson , at *1 (Apr. 27, 2001)).

¶9. On April 3, 2020, Judge Cotton entered an order mandating the immediate responsibility of the Yazoo County Court prosecutor for preparation of all youth court orders for all adjudication, disposition, permanency, and review hearings. After Judge Cotton had entered the order, she emailed Donaldson a copy of it with a message that explained the order and instructed him to begin preparing the orders immediately. Donaldson responded to the email, stating:

Betsy, ... I am not your employee. I was elected just like you were. I answer to the best of my knowledge to the Attorney General of this State. If you budget for and[sic] Youth Court Prosecutor I believe that he reports to you and you may set his duties. I am the County Prosecuting Attorney and can Prosecute any matter which I deem to be suitable for Prosecution. I believe that is the law. I believe that my duties are set by statute.... Also think about
336 So.3d 1104
the fact that I have been doing this for more than 35 years.

¶10. No delinquency hearings were held by the youth court following the entry of the order dated April 3, 2020, until April 22, 2020. Additional hearings were held on April 27 and 28, 2020. Because Donaldson had not prepared orders for these three hearings, Judge Cotton, on May 4, 2020, emailed Donaldson to remind him to comply with her order of April 3, 2020, and "with Youth Court time standards for having [o]rders entered following Youth Court hearings."

¶11. The next day, May 5, 2020, Donaldson wrote a letter to Judge Cotton in which he again refused to abide by her order. In his letter, Donaldson explained his decision:

The 1996 opinion, Harkey , ... recited and concludes that "[a]ny paperwork necessary to commence a filing in the youth court would be the responsibility of the youth court prosecutor. However, any paperwork for taking a juvenile into custody and disposition of a case is the responsibility of the youth court staff, which is hired by the Judge and paid by the County out of the court's budget. Therefore, drafting the orders of the court would be the responsibility of the court staff hired by the Judge."

You are apparently relying solely on a foot note referring to a Circuit Judge instead of the statute which is clearly stated and referred in both the 1996, opinion and the 2020, opinion requested by you. Please be advised that I do not work for you. I am not a clerical employee of the Court paid by the Youth Court, nor do I have a budget for clerical or other staff. Further, although I do not want to poison what has previously been an amicable relationship with you. (In fact I supported your initial appointment as Judge by the County Board of Supervisors and your later Election) I do not intend to follow your directive which I believe to be contrary to statute. In other words, I am an elected official
...

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