Rupert Howell Column

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 12, 2010

Rupert Howell

Judge’s tenure marked by fairness, prudence … and practicality 

An  attorney told me several years ago that a lawyer would never pick a “newspaper man” for a juror. I did everything possible to remain in contention when summoned to do my civic duty by the local circuit court, not once but twice.

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The first time I was picked and we found the suspect guilty as charged and sent him away.

Along the way I got quite a life experience by getting to hear Circuit Judge Andrew Baker lecture us prospective jurors. Judge Baker hails from Tallahatchie County and if ever there was a breeding ground for Southern orators, it would be there. It was obvious that he feels quite comfortable in front of a room full of prospective jurors and probably a room full of most anybodies. His loud, deep voice that carries a hint of Southern Hill combined with Old South accent, commands the listener’s attention. He’s also pleasant to listen to.

Judge Baker announced Monday that he would not be seeking re-election, and would be taking “senior status.” He will fulfill his term which expires at the end of 2010.

A series of crimes involving murder, fraud and a slough of other transgressions by  a few local miscreants occurred in the late 1970s in Judge Baker’s district. The jury was picked from Panola County where most of the crimes occurred, and at the time, anybody connected to a respected dog could get released from jury duty with a phone call.

After an accused murderer was found not guilty for reasons that prosecutors blamed on an inept jury pool, jury duty became harder to be excused from. Sheriffs, prosecutors and judges, Baker included, were not so quick to pardon citizens from their jury duty service.

A short while later I was summoned for jury duty and found myself in the large courtroom of the local courthouse packed full of potential jurors.

Judge Baker asked the usual questions.

“Anybody over 65 who doesn’t want to serve, raise your hand.”

They would and he would excuse them.

“Anybody sick, or disabled who feels they can’t serve?”

And he would excuse them.

Knowing that the court had buckled down on those trying to skirt their jury service made me wonder what was going on when Judge Baker sweetly asked the group, “Is there anyone else in this room who really doesn’t feel like they want to serve on a jury today?”

Most of the remaining three or four dozen potential jurors immediately raised their hands and were quickly excused, scurrying out the courtroom door before the judge could change his mind.

After the last one exited, Judge Baker smiled and thanked the remaining few of us for being willing to serve. He told us the case had been settled late the day before and there was no way the clerk of the court could have notified us. He then said the ones remaining would receive a check for their troubles while the others only got zilch.

I put the pencil to it and figured that Judge Andy Baker saved Panola County several thousand dollars of jury pay that afternoon. He didn’t cheat or short anybody. We all got what we wanted and by him being patient and forward thinking, he saved tax taxpayers several thousand dollars.

If all judiciary and elected officials could be so practical thinking this country would be a much better place. Judge Andy Baker’s Circuit Court District is a better place because he was willing to judiciously, prudently and patiently serve.