It was a proud and humbling moment Tuesday night for longtime West Point attorney Bennie Jones, who received a hearty round of applause after the city of West Point hired him as the first African American Municipal Court Judge.
The decision by the West Point Board of Mayor and Selectman came just one week after current Municipal Court Judge Mark Cliett submitted a letter to the board stating he would be stepping down as judge effective February 28.
Ward 4 Selectman Keith McBrayer made the motion to hire Jones, and the motion was seconded by Ward 5 Selectman Jasper Pittman. Ward 1 Selectman Rod Bobo was absent at Tuesday’s meeting and was unable to cast a vote, but the motion passed after receiving approving votes from the other four city selectmen.
Jones, who has served as a private practice attorney for over 30 years, will serve the remainder of the term through June 30 and expressed his appreciation to the board for supporting him as he prepares to serve in his new public service capacity.
“I’m really humbled by the board’s and the mayor’s trust and confidence in me,appointing me to this very important position, and I will do my very best to live up to your expectations,” Jones said. “I’m looking forward to serving the citizens of West Point and Clay County.”
Jones is a native of Merigold, Miss and graduated from East Side High School in Cleveland, Miss. He and his family are longtime residents of West Point, having lived on N. Division Street since 1989 and are longtime members of Davidson Chapel M.B. Church of West Point. He received his law degree in 1975 from the University of Florida after attending Colorado State University as well as the University of Maryland Extension and Mississippi State University Extension during his time in the Air Force.
Jones’ judge seat is also the first public office Jones has held in West Point and Clay County, and he said he believes he “can be fair and just. A person has to have compassion for the people who appear before the court yet have the capability of being stern at the same time. You also have to have knowledge of the law and the application of the law.”
He said at this time he doesn’t plan to make any immediate changes to Municipal Court but plans to first familiarize himself with the system already in place.
“Every judge has his or her own approach within the framework of what a judge can do discretionarily as opposed to what a judge has to do where there is no discretion,” he said. “I think there are programs that individual municipalities can act on at the suggestion of the judge, but the governing body would have to approve any kind of programs implemented by a judge.”
West Point Mayor Scott Ross said several letters of interest came in this past week from attorneys, who expressed interest in serving as judge. As Municipal Court cannot be conducted without a municipal judge, Ross advised the board that a decision to hire a judge would have to be made fairly quickly since Cliett’s last day to serve is only two weeks away.
As of Tuesday, no applications had been submitted for the vacant seat of city prosecuting attorney, but Ross said court proceedings can continue for a while without a prosecutor in place. The city expects applications for prosecutor to come in soon after which time the board will hire someone who will then serve until June 30.
After June 30 a new city administration will take over, and the new board will once again decide who will serve the next four years as municipal judge and municipal prosecuting attorney. Jones said he does plan to reapply for the judge’s seat after the new administration has been elected.