Quitman County v. State, 2003-SA-02658-SCT.

Citation910 So.2d 1032
Decision Date29 September 2005
Docket NumberNo. 2003-SA-02658-SCT.,2003-SA-02658-SCT.
PartiesQUITMAN COUNTY, Mississippi v. STATE of Mississippi, Haley Barbour, in his Official Capacity as Governor and Jim Hood, in his Official Capacity as Attorney General.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Mississippi

Page 1032

910 So.2d 1032
STATE of Mississippi, Haley Barbour, in his Official Capacity as Governor and Jim Hood, in his Official Capacity as Attorney General.
No. 2003-SA-02658-SCT.
Supreme Court of Mississippi.
July 21, 2005.
Rehearing Denied September 29, 2005.

Page 1033

J. Christopher Klotz, William H. Voth, Kathleen A. Behan, attorneys for appellant.

Page 1034

Office of the Attorney General by Billy Berryhill, Harold Edward Pizzetta, attorneys for appellees.


SMITH, Chief Justice, for the Court.

¶1. This case is now before this Court a second time. Quitman County [hereinafter the County] filed this action for declaratory and injunctive relief against the State of Mississippi, Governor Haley Barbour, and Attorney General Jim Hood. The County alleged that Mississippi's statutes requiring the counties to provide legal services for indigent criminal defendants are unconstitutional. The County sought a declaratory judgment because the State has allegedly breached its duty to provide effective assistance of counsel, in violation of Article 3, Section 26 of the Mississippi Constitution, and the County also sought an injunction to compel the Legislature to create a statewide, state-funded public defenders' office. After the Circuit Court of Quitman County denied the defendants' motion to dismiss, this Court granted permission for an interlocutory appeal. State v. Quitman Cty., 807 So.2d 401, 402 (Miss.2001) (Quitman I).

¶2. This Court held that the County had standing to bring this action and had pleaded facts which, if assumed to be true, were sufficient to withstand a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure. Id. at 406, 409. This Court affirmed and remanded but stressed that its decision "should not be construed as stating a position" on the constitutionality of the current funding scheme or "[w]hether Quitman County can prove [its] allegations at a full trial on the merits will be determined upon remand." Id. at 406, 410. Following a trial on remand, the circuit court found no constitutional violation and entered judgment for the defendants. We agree with the learned circuit judge. Quitman County failed to meet its burden of proof. We, therefore, affirm.


¶3. A bench trial was held in the Circuit Court of Quitman County from April 29, 2003, through May 6, 2003. After the parties had submitted proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law, the court issued a thorough opinion concluding that Quitman County had not met its burden of proving that the funding mechanism established by statute had led to systemic ineffective assistance of counsel in Quitman County and throughout the state. The circuit court's final judgment was entered on November 10, 2003, and Quitman County filed a timely notice of appeal.

Applicable Law

¶4. In Quitman I, 807 So.2d at 410, this Court stated that:

[t]he question raised by the County's allegations is whether, assuming the State has failed in its duty to provide effective indigent defense, the county-based system has resulted in the inability of the judiciary to operate in an independent and effective manner to the extent that this Court must of necessity, interfere in this traditionally legislative function and order the Legislature to establish a statewide, state-funded system of indigent criminal defense. Again, taking as true the well-pled allegations of the County's complaint, such system constitutional deficiencies would entitle the County to relief.

In Quitman I, 807 So.2d at 406-07, we also recited the applicable law dealing with the representation of indigent defendants and the funding thereof. Art. 3, § 26 of the Mississippi Constitution states, in pertinent part that:

Page 1035

In all criminal prosecutions the accused shall have a right to be heard by himself or counsel, or both, to demand the nature and cause of the accusation, to be confronted by the witnesses against him, to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and, in all prosecutions by indictment or information, a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury of the county where the offense was committed....

This provision has been interpreted to create a duty on the part of the State to provide effective assistance of counsel to indigent defendants. Id. See also Mease v. State, 583 So.2d 1283 (Miss.1991); Wilson v. State, 574 So.2d 1338 (Miss.1990); Conn v. State, 251 Miss. 488, 170 So.2d 20 (1964) (relying on Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335, 83 S.Ct. 792, 9 L.Ed.2d 799 (1963)). Additionally, Art. 14, § 261 of the Mississippi Constitution provides that "[t]he expenses of criminal prosecutions shall be borne by the county in which such prosecution shall be begun."

¶5. Section 25-32-7 of the Mississippi Code Annotated is the statutory authority that requires counties to fund the representation of indigent criminal defendants and specifically provides for the compensation and expenses for the public defender's office. Section 25-32-7 provides that:

The public defender shall be provided with office space, secretarial assistance, and all reasonable expenses of operating the office, at least equal to or more than the county prosecuting attorney, or the district attorney if the public defender represents the entire circuit court district. The compensation and expenses of the public defender's office shall be paid by the county or counties if two (2) or more counties are acting jointly. The funds shall be paid upon allowance by the board of supervisors by order spread upon the minutes of the board.

Also, § 99-15-17, in pertinent part provides "[t]he fees and expenses [of counsel for indigents] as allowed by the appropriate judge shall be paid by the county treasurer out of the general fund of the county in which the prosecution was commenced." Quitman I, 807 So.2d at 407.


I. Applicable Legal Standard.

¶6. This Court has held that if the trial court applies the wrong legal standard, the review of the ruling is de novo. Baker v. State, 802 So.2d 77, 80 (Miss.2001) (citing Butler v. State, 592 So.2d 983, 986 (Miss.1991) ("[T]he trial court enjoys considerable discretion, and, so long as that court exercises that discretion by reference to the correct legal standards, we will not reverse absent substantial abuse of discretion")). This Court has also stated "where ... the trial judge has applied an erroneous legal standard, we should not hesitate to reverse." McClendon v. State, 539 So.2d 1375, 1377 (Miss.1989). This Court has held that it "cannot overturn the decree of a chancellor unless it finds with reasonable certainty that the decree is manifestly wrong on a question of law or interpretation of facts pertaining to legal questions." Incorporation of the City of Oak Grove v. City of Hattiesburg, 684 So.2d 1274, 1276 (Miss.1996) (citations omitted). Moreover a "`circuit judge sitting without a jury is accorded the same deference with regard to his findings as a chancellor,' and his findings are safe on appeal where they are supported by substantial, credible, and reasonable evidence." City of Clinton v. Smith, 861 So.2d 323, 326 (Miss.2003) (internal citations omitted).

¶7. At trial, the County had the burden of proving that the State has breached its constitutional duty to provide

Page 1036

indigent defendants with effective assistance of counsel by requiring each county to fund its own indigent criminal defense. The County asserted that it cannot afford to discharge its burden of providing funding for indigent defendants in a constitutional manner. Since statutes are presumptively constitutional, when there is a conflict between a statutory scheme and a constitutional provision, it must be "palpable" before the courts of this State will declare a statute unconstitutional. State v. Miss. Ass'n of Supervisors, Inc., 699 So.2d 1221, 1223 (Miss.1997). Therefore, the County had to establish the unconstitutionality of this system beyond a reasonable doubt. Jones v. State, 710 So.2d 870, 877 (Miss.1998).

The Strickland standard

¶8. The County claims that the circuit judge applied the wrong legal standard to the its claims for relief. The County argues that instead of using the standard that this Court and the United States Supreme Court held governs this case, the circuit judge applied a "higher, two part test used only for post conviction challenges by individual criminal defendants" as elaborated in Howard v. State, 853 So.2d 781 (Miss.2003) and Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 688, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 2064, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984). The United States Supreme Court held in Strickland v. Washington 466 U.S. at 690, 104 S.Ct. at 2066, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 that:

Thus, a court deciding an actual ineffectiveness claim must judge the reasonableness of counsel's challenged conduct on the facts of the particular case, viewed as of the time of counsel's conduct. A convicted defendant making a claim of ineffective assistance must identify the acts or omissions of counsel that are alleged not to have been the result of reasonable professional judgment. The court must then determine whether, in light of all the circumstances, the identified acts or omissions were outside the wide range of professionally competent assistance. In making that determination, the court should keep in mind that counsel's function, as elaborated in prevailing professional norms, is to make the adversarial testing process work in the particular case. At the same time, the court should recognize that counsel is strongly presumed to have rendered adequate assistance and made all significant decisions in the exercise of reasonable professional judgment.

The State counters this assertion by saying that the circuit court "unambiguously stated that the question before it was not `whether in isolated cases the public defenders were ineffective.'" Attorneys David Tisdell and Allan Shackleford were...

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