Steven Hayne

Oliver Diaz, Jr.

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In Mississippi, state supreme court justices are elected, not appointed. They serve eight-year terms, but can serve multiple terms if they're reelected. Yesterday Associate Justice Oliver Diaz, Jr. announced his plans to run for reelection.

Diaz may face a tough campaign, due in part to the fact that he's one of the more liberal justices on the court. He's also the only justice on the court who seems to give a damn about the sham that is Mississippi's criminal justice system. Diaz was instrumental in building a coalition to throw out Dr. Steven Hayne's absurd two-hands-on-the-gun testimony in the Tyler Edmonds case. My sources in Mississippi tell me the court initially was planning to uphold Hayne's testimony and Edmonds' conviction. Diaz not only succeeded in turning that around for a 8-1 vote for a new trial, he wrote a blistering concurring opinion stating that Dr. Hayne should never testify in Mississippi's courts again (disclosure: he cited my reason article on the Cory Maye case in that opinion). Unfortunately, Diaz wasn't able to convince a majority of his colleagues of his opinion of Dr. Hayne, and so Hayne continues to do the bulk of the state's autopsies.

The other reason Diaz may face an uphill battle for reelection is because several years ago, he was indicted by the Bush Justice Department on public corruption charges. Diaz, a former Republican now backed by Democrats, maintained his innocence throughout the ordeal, refused to plea or resign his seat on the court, and was eventually acquitted on all charges. The Bush Justice Department then indicted him again. And he was acquitted again. His case is now being investigated by Congress to see if it was one of a series of overtly political and questionably meritorious prosecutions of Democratic public officials led by Bush-appointed U.S. attorneys (other prosecutions under investigation include those against former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman and Pennsylvania medical examiner Cyril Wecht).

One other thing: The federal charges against Diaz stemmed from his relationship with Paul Minor, a plaintiff's attorney in Mississippi who got rich off the tobacco settlement. As Harper's Scott Horton points out, the case against Diaz, Minor, and others was part of a GOP backlash in Mississippi against the rise and enormous influence of trial lawyers in that state. But interestingly, while Diaz is often painted as a friend of the plaintiff's bar, it's worth noting that Dr. Hayne is also a favorite of trial lawyers in Mississippi. Part of Hayne's success stems from the fact that he has managed to win over both the state's prosecutors and the state's trial lawyers (and the county coroners, who often go out of their way to please both). Talk to any medical malpractice defense attorney in Mississippi, for example, and they'll rant about Hayne's absurd testimony in various tort cases for a good ten minutes (I'll have more on this next week).

Diaz's blistering opinion singling out Hayne in the Edmonds case, then, was actually a blow to the state's trial lawyers—the very group for whom the feds and the state's GOP accuse of Diaz of being a shill.  His continued presence on the court is important to keep the pressure on the state to do something about Hayne.

It would be unfortunate if South Mississippi's voters were to take Diaz off the bench due to what looks like an overtly political federal prosecution. Right now, at least on criminal justice issues, he's the only justice on the Mississippi Supreme Court who seems to even realize Mississippi has a problem.