Supreme Court rules Hinds judge right to fine defense lawyer

Published 10:20 am Monday, January 9, 2017

JACKSON(AP) — Mississippi’s Supreme Court has upheld a Hinds County judge’s decision to fine a private lawyer $1,300 for refusing to represent a defendant who couldn’t pay.

The high court ruled in Circuit Judge Jeff Weill’s favor last week, in one of a number of legal case that sprang from Weill’s dispute with the county’s public defender office.

Randy Harris, then a private lawyer, was named by Weill to represent a defendant in a child pornography case after Weill refused to appoint public defenders to represent people without money.

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The Supreme Court later ruled that Weill was wrong to reassign the 55 cases, and ordered Weill to allow defendants to choose whether they wanted the public defender or a private lawyer to represent them.

Cameron Travelsted chose to remain represented by Harris. But on July 10, just before the trial, Harris asked Weill to let him out of the case, saying Hinds County was refusing to pay for any private lawyers that Weill had appointed and putting him in the “difficult” position of having to sue the Board of Supervisors for payment. Harris also said that by then, Travelsted was willing to have the public defender represent him.

Weill refused to let him withdraw, and Harris balked at going forward

“Even though you believe you’re right, I believe that you’re wrong,” Harris said. “And I’m just not going to participate.”

Weill fined him $100 for contempt and $1,200 for the costs of a jury. Harris argued that jurors were used in another trial, but the Supreme Court ruled he’d presented that argument too late in the jury process for it to be considered.

Justice James Maxwell, writing for the court, says an attorney can’t just walk away from representing a client.

“Even if Harris believed he had good cause to terminate his representation of Travelsted based on the circumstances, he still had to obtain the court’s permission in order to withdraw,” Maxwell wrote.