JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour on Tuesday named a black lawyer to a judicial post for the first time during his nearly six years of office, choosing an attorney who previously criticized the lack of diversity in the governor's appointments.
Barbour appointed Malcolm O. Harrison to serve the unexpired term of former Hinds County Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter, who resigned July 30 after pleading guilty to federal charges stemming from a judicial bribery case. The four-year term for the Hinds County circuit judgeship ends Jan. 3, 2011.
Harrison, 40, has been a Hinds County prosecuting attorney since 1999 and has a private law practice in Jackson. He is a past president of the Magnolia Bar Association. The black attorneys' group has complained that none of the governor's first 20 judicial appointees was black.
About 37 percent of Mississippi residents are black, according to the Census. The state Administrative Office of the Courts says Mississippi has 24 black judges, including Harrison, out of a total of 140 judges. That works about to about 17 percent of the seats. The figure covers the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals and chancery, circuit and county courts.
Barbour said Harrison, who was chosen from more than 20 other applicants, will bring extensive criminal and civil experience to the bench.
"He was chosen for the judgeship based on his qualifications," Barbour spokesman Dan Turner said Tuesday.
Mississippi circuit judges are paid $104,170 a year.
In a February interview with The Associated Press, Harrison, who was then president of the Magnolia Bar, said the absence of a black among Barbour's appointees "makes no sense to us. The Republican Party in Mississippi doesn't believe diversity is important, especially not in the judiciary in Mississippi."
Harrison downplayed those comments on Tuesday. He said race was never a part of his discussion with Barbour or the governor's staff during the search for DeLaughter's replacement.
"In my conversations with the governor, he was serious about appointing the best person for the job," Harrison said.
"I think it's important to take all opinions into account, but also have a diverse pool in which you choose the best qualified candidates. I don't think it's important that you choose an African American, but I do think it's important to consider everyone," he said.
Gail Walker, current president of the Magnolia Bar, said Barbour didn't appoint a black until her association made it an issue.
"His lack of diversity in appointments prior to this point raises doubt regarding his genuine concern for diversity versus his interest in creating a better portfolio of himself if and when he chooses to compete in national political campaigns," Walker said.
Barbour has been mentioned as a potential Republican candidate for president in 2012.
Turner said Harrison's selection went through the same process as other judicial appointments. Applicants are screened by Barbour's judicial advisory committee, a panel of attorneys who recommend a candidate. Barbour has said few blacks apply for the vacant positions.
Turner said race hadn't been an issue in judicial appointments, and there have been instances when no minorities applied. He also said the advisory committee has sometimes determined that some applicants, black and white, lacked the necessary qualifications.
Harrison will begin serving next Monday.
May 7 is the deadline for candidates to qualify to run in the November 2010 judicial elections. Mississippi judicial candidates run without party labels. Harrison said he would run for the office.
DeLaughter was known for successfully prosecuting white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith in 1994 for the 1963 murder of Mississippi NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers. DeLaughter pleaded guilty July 30 to lying to an FBI agent investigating judicial corruption. DeLaughter will be sentenced Nov. 13.