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franklin county times

Quasi-court, quasi-effective

By By Suzanne Monk / managing editor
July 28, 2002
The last time I wrote about Rita Jack's appeal to the Civil Service Commission, I remarked that you have to be a lawyer or hire one to make your way efficiently through the procedural maze of a hearing.
After part two of that hearing on Thursday night, I'm convinced that an appeal hearing's quasi-legal format and stopwatch mentality don't just make the whole thing more complicated than it needs to be. They actually obstruct the truth.
Each side, Jack and the city of Meridian, had one hour to present their case. Five hours into the hearing, I'm not sure I heard any witness complete a sentence amid repeated objections by attorneys for both sides.
Jack was fired by Police Chief Benny DuBose amid allegations that she and a civilian employee, Vivian Groves, stole money and checks from the police station's front desk. The thefts occurred between February and May of 2001.
Groves admitted her guilt, but said Jack was her partner in the embezzlement scheme. Both were suspended and, ultimately, fired.
Jack was never arrested and denies the charges. District Attorney Bilbo Mitchell presented the case against Jack to a Lauderdale County grand jury in November, but the panel declined to indict her.
Groves was not prosecuted.
Jack appealed her termination to the Meridian Civil Service Commission. A hearing into the matter began on May 2; part two happened Thursday.
Court procedure
Appeal hearings before the CSC are conducted a lot like civil trials in Lauderdale County Circuit Court. Attorneys for each side present their witnesses and ask them questions during "direct examination."
The other side's attorney then cross-examines the witness. After that, the first lawyer comes back with more questions in his "re-direct."
In a courtroom, there are rules enforced by the judge about what you can ask witnesses and what questions they can answer. Why? Because the jury is not allowed to hear everything.
For example, say a defendant is on trial for sale of cocaine. The police found 20 pounds of it in a closet in his apartment, but they didn't have a search warrant. The search was illegal and the jury can't hear anything about the 20 pounds of cocaine. The judge will prevent that information from coming out during questioning.
The idea is to make sure that jurors don't hear any unfairly prejudicial testimony.
Square peg, round hole
The same rules apply in a hearing before the Civil Service Commission, but they are a bad fit because there are fundamental differences between trials and CSC hearings:
1. The five-member Civil Service Commission is both judge and jury;
2. Commissioners are privy to all discussions and sidebars between the CSC chairman, the CSC attorney and attorneys for the disputing sides; and
3. Commissioners, unlike jurors, get to ask their own questions.
If rules about testimony are designed to control what jurors get to hear, they seem a little out-of-place in a hearing where the jury in this case the Civil Service Commission is going to hear it all anyway.
And, there is a problem with the idea that commissioners can only hear the amount of truth that can be told on time remaining on a stopwatch. Especially if most of the time is spent discussing objections and fragmenting the narrative.
A more informal procedure would work better. Something without lawyers. Something more like letting the CSC call everyone in one at a time and ask the questions they think are important.
But, I'll bet it's against the rules.
The CSC's decision in Jack's appeal is expected within two weeks.
Two of my favorite guys
On an unrelated subject, two of my favorite community writers are included in this edition of The Meridian Star Bobby Rushing and McRae Limerick. Both are prolific contributors to the profile edition published each February.
Both are older gentlemen with a keen eye for detail.
Bobby's piece about family reunions is on the front page. It is contemplative, lyrical, kind, evocative. Like all good writing, its visual imagery tranports me to a different place. Bobby also has a rare gift for choking me up.
McRae's letter to the editor is on page A9. You probably remember him for his Profile story about training to be an airplane engine mechanic during World War IIj because he couldn't join the military.
Who but McRae Limerick could disagree in such a gentlemanly fashion? Criticize a person, while thanking them? It's an almost lost art in this day and age, they have seminars for it.
McRae is also an archivist, and his grasp of history is admirable, as is clear from his letter.
Make sure you check them out.