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Mississippi Stories: Patrick Ellis

In this episode of Mississippi Stories, Mississippi Today Editor-at-Large Marshall Ramsey sits down with outgoing WLBT Meteorologist Patrick Ellis. Ellis, who will still be seen by many Mississippi Today readers who live in the Memphis broadcast area, will be going to WMC as their weekday morning forecaster.

He talks about his love of weather, his six years in the Jackson market and what’s ahead for this talented forecaster. He overcame his childhood fear of thunderstorms to pursue a career in meteorology and broadcasting after graduating from Mississippi State University’s highly touted meteorology program.

The post Mississippi Stories: Patrick Ellis appeared first on Mississippi Today.

Judge denies trans student’s plea to be free to wear dress at graduation

A judge will not block the Harrison County School District from requiring a trans girl to dress as a boy for her graduation ceremony Saturday. 

The order was given from the bench late Friday night after attempts to settle the matter in conference and a hearing Friday afternoon, according to court records. 

The student, a 17-year-old senior at Harrison Central High School, has been openly transgender for her entire high school career and has “frequently and consistently worn dresses, skirts, and traditionally feminine clothing items and accessories to school and school-sponsored events and activities, without issue or repercussion,” according to the original complaint. 

The ACLU sued the district Thursday after the student, referred to as L.B. in court documents, was told last week that she would not be able to wear a dress to graduation as she had been planning and would not be able to participate in the ceremony if she did wear a dress. Harrison Central High School Principal Kelly Fuller told L.B. in the course of the conversation that it was prompted by Harrison County Superintendent Mitchell King calling the school and asking what transgender students would wear to graduation.

The judge ruled that the case did not meet the standard to grant “extraordinary relief in changing the status quo in a short time period,” as reported by WLOX. The judge said there is limited case law regarding dress codes for transgender people and that similar cases did not exist. 

The lawsuit alleged gender discrimination as a violation of constitutional rights and federal law, specifically Title IX, the First Amendment’s freedom of expression clause, and the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. The response from the school district argued that L.B. does not have a federally protected right to attend a voluntary graduation ceremony. 

The Harrison Central High School graduation is scheduled for Saturday, May 20, at 6:30 p.m. 

The post Judge denies trans student’s plea to be free to wear dress at graduation appeared first on Mississippi Today.

Report reflects few gains in state pre-K enrollment. Newer state data presents rosier picture.

Enrollment and spending on pre-K remained relatively stagnant in the 2021-22 school year, according to a new national report. 

Newer state data shows that enrollment has increased significantly this school year because of recent investments from the Legislature. 

State-funded pre-K in Mississippi is primarily the Early Learning Collaboratives, which are partnerships among school districts, Head Start agencies, childcare centers and nonprofit groups. 

According to the 2022 State of Preschool Yearbook, published by the National Institute for Early Education Research, 2,807 students were enrolled in state-funded preschool last year, which amounts to 8% of the 4-year-olds in the state. The state has hovered at 8% access since 2020 when the institute previously said Mississippi had high-quality standards but lacked comprehensive access.

According to the Mississippi Department of Education, 6,800 students are being served in 37 collaboratives this year, up from 18 collaboratives last year. 

The increase in the number of collaboratives, and subsequently the number of students being served,  is the result of a $16 million increase in funding over the 2021 and 2022 legislative sessions. The state also allocated $20 million for state-funded pre-K in school districts separate from the Early Learning Collaboratives in the 2022 legislative session, which the education department allocated to 11 school districts in November of last year. 

The report, using the older figures, ranks Mississippi 37th nationally for access to state-funded pre-k. 

“Mississippi leaders should continue to move forward to address this ongoing lack of access and increase teacher pay to ensure that all children have access to the educational opportunities they deserve,” said the report’s lead author, Allison Friedman-Krauss, in a statement.

The report noted that nationally, state-funded preschool programs reported a shortage of qualified teachers. Additional data on pre-K teacher shortages in Mississippi was not available in the report, but the education department reported 66 pre-K teacher vacancies this year in its annual survey

When looking at pre-K access more broadly, the institute’s report found 53% of Mississippi 4-year-olds enrolled in some type of publicly funded pre-K, including Head Start and locally administered programs. 

The institute again found Mississippi to be one of the only states in the nation to meet all 10 of its quality standards, which the 2013 Early Learning Collaboratives Act was specifically designed to meet. 

“Mississippi continues to be a national leader in early childhood education because of the quality of our Early Learning Collaborative program,” Mike Kent, interim state superintendent of education, said in a statement. 

The post Report reflects few gains in state pre-K enrollment. Newer state data presents rosier picture. appeared first on Mississippi Today.

Legislative committee releases report on UMMC’s LGBTQ+ clinic

A legislative committee on Friday released a report about an LGBTQ+ clinic at the University of Mississippi Medical Center that came under fire last year after lawmakers were angered to learn it had provided gender-affirming care to trans youth. 

UMMC leadership ultimately decided the “Trustworthy, Evidence-based, Affirming, Multidisciplinary,” or TEAM, clinic should stop seeing trans kids last fall even though gender-affirming care for minors was legal at the time, according to emails obtained by Mississippi Today. 

It wasn’t until earlier this year that lawmakers passed House Bill 1125, which banned the provision of gender-affirming care to trans minors in Mississippi. 

READ MORE: ‘Facing political pressure, UMMC cut care to trans kids before the Legislature banned doing so, emails show’

The purpose of Friday’s brief published by the Joint Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review, or PEER, was to provide lawmakers with an overview of — and the sources of funding for — gender-affirming care at the TEAM clinic. The report also provides a summary of HB 1125.

It asks basic questions like “why did UMMC open the TEAM clinic,” “how does the TEAM clinic operate” and “what services are provided by the TEAM clinic?” 

The answers paint a picture of a shoestring clinic without its own dedicated physical space that operated on private funds and was staffed by the goodwill of 18 employees who had other primary responsibilities at UMMC. The TEAM clinic, founded in 2015, sought to provide a slate of health services in an inclusive environment for LGBTQ+ Mississippians. That included primary care and more specialized services like mental health and gender-affirming care. 

Despite conservative lawmakers and blogs claiming that state funding was paying “for mutilation of children,” the TEAM Clinic mainly ran on patient revenue and grant funding from three sources: The Women’s Foundation of Mississippi, the LGBTQ Fund of Mississippi and the Manning Family Fund. 

The TEAM clinic did not provide surgery to patients under the age of 18. For adults, surgical referrals to UMMC’s Plastic Surgery Department were provided.

Most of the patient revenue that supported the clinic over a roughly three-year period beginning in fiscal year 2020 came from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Mississippi ($55,051) and other commercial insurances. The Mississippi Division of Medicaid paid out $24,122 in claims, according to the report, about 17% of the amount billed by UMMC for services at the TEAM clinic.  

A very small portion of state funding — an estimated $1,215 in fiscal year 2022 — paid for the few hours that providers spent at the TEAM clinic on the first Friday of every month.

The miniscule amount of state funding is similar to what PEER discovered when it also sent inquiries to Mississippi Medicaid to determine how much the agency paid out in claims associated with gender identity disorder or gender dysphoria. 

All told, it took approximately $25,000 a year to support the clinic’s operations, the PEER found.

The clinic saw less than 300 patients in the same three-year period, an estimate that might be “overinflated” due to the way UMMC maintained confidentiality in its patient count, the report found. 

Just 221 people in that same period sought “gender transition services” at the TEAM Clinic, which the report appears to have counted as services ranging from “behavioral health” to prescriptions like puberty blockers and hormone therapy. 

Over the three-year period, PEER estimated that just 53 patients under the age of 18 received gender transition services. 

But the report says that “in FY 2024, the number of minors served in the Clinic should be zero.” 

That number is due to HB 1125 but also to UMMC’s decision, made many months before the bill passed, to stop providing gender-affirming care like hormone therapy and puberty blockers to trans youth at the TEAM clinic. The PEER committee’s report may have been a factor in that decision.

The first inkling UMMC received of lawmakers’ interest in the clinic came on Aug. 31 when UMMC Vice Chancellor and Dean of the School of Medicine Dr. LouAnn Woodward was sent via hand mail a letter from the committee that was then forwarded to the TEAM clinic.

PEER’s letter requested “certain information regarding services provided by and payments provided to UMMC regarding gender transition services,” including how many services were provided to youth and adults and what amount had been subsidized by taxpayers or billed to Mississippi Medicaid. 

Lawmakers had asked about the clinic in the past, but this time, PEER’s letter was followed by what Kristy Simms, UMMC’s point person with elected officials at the state and federal level, described as “dozens of inquiries,” according to emails obtained by Mississippi Today. 

After Simms talked with lawmakers, emails show she proposed UMMC consider shutting down the clinic. She characterized her conversations with lawmakers, including Sam Mims, the chair of the House Public Health and Human Services Committee, as “hostile and slightly threatening.”  

“It’s looking more and more like we have two options,” she wrote on Sept. 12. “Pause or shutter some/all of the work of the Center or be told to do so by the legislature in January.” 

Staring in early October, the TEAM clinic began implementing leadership’s decision to stop providing gender-affirming care to trans kids, a move that impacted services across the hospital — and left parents and patients scrambling. 

“Because it was such a welcoming environment, I couldn’t believe that they had just dropped patients like that,” Raymond Walker, a trans teenager who had sought care at the clinic, told Mississippi Today in April. “I was just completely blindsided.” 

The emails also show UMMC leadership pondering if they should begin “dismantling” the TEAM in response to lawmakers’ inquiries. 

The PEER report ends with a recommendation for a way UMMC could do that. 

“UMMC could consider integrating services provided by the TEAM Clinic back into UMMC’s regular care setting, similar to the way it did with services provided to minors, and offer optional LGBTQ training courses to all staff and students,” the report says. 

Now law, HB 1125 provides that any Mississippian, including doctors, can be held civilly liable for “conduct” that aids and abets the provision of gender-affirming care for trans youth, but advocates and attorneys have noted it’s unclear what that looks like. 

UMMC has yet to answer that, but PEER notes the hospital’s attorneys are working to understand if its providers “will be allowed to refer patients to providers outside of the state, or if that would be considered aiding or abetting as provided in the law.” 

The post Legislative committee releases report on UMMC’s LGBTQ+ clinic appeared first on Mississippi Today.

Jackson attorney may be king of conservatorships in Mississippi

Consider Jackson attorney Harry Rosenthal as the king of conservatorships.

By his own estimate, he has been a conservator for more than 100 vulnerable individuals. Hinds County Chancery Court records show he’s continuing to handle a dozen conservatorships.

Though it’s not known how much the attorney receives in each case, in Hinds County alone, Rosenthal’s income from being a conservator could be substantial.

The average salary for a non-family member conservator is $51,214 per year in Mississippi, according to the research blog salary.com. ZipRecruiter, which says it gets its salary estimates from employer job postings and third party data sources, puts the average salary in Mississippi at $47,787.

State Supreme Court Justice Dawn Beam, who helped craft changes to the conservatorship law, said most appointed conservators are family members, and they aren’t paid a lot of money.

The law allows a family member to be paid fees set by a judge for their service.

Professional conservators are entitled to reasonable fees, but the judge decides what is reasonable and must approve the amount before the conservator can be paid. Money for the conservator comes from the account of the person under a conservatorship. If a person under a conservator has little or no financial assets, the judge can appoint a public guardian/conservator who is paid from public funds.

Some attorneys say the new law makes it difficult for ordinary citizens to file conservatorship petitions without the assistance of attorneys. 

Elder law experts say the cost of obtaining a conservatorship over someone can be expensive with the hiring of attorneys or attorneys to represent the individual, family members and interested parties. There are also court and other fees involved with a conservatorship petition.

READ: The Conservatorship fight over Opal

Rosenthal told the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, a part of Mississippi Today, that most of the wards for whom he has served as conservator were once clients in criminal cases. 

More than 30 years ago, the attorney provided $12,000 in bail money to try to help white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith get out of jail after he was indicted and arrested for the third time in the assassination of Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers.

Although Jewish, a group of people Beckwith disparaged, Rosenthal, 82, has said he provided the money to Beckwith because he believed his speedy trial rights were being violated after two previous trials in 1964 ended in hung juries.

In 1994, 30 years after his previous trials, Beckwith was convicted in Hinds County Circuit Court of Evers’ murder and sentenced to life in prison. Beckwith died in 2001 in custody.

Thirty-four years ago, Rosenthal filed the petition to become conservator for Gary Gordineer in Hinds County Chancery Court.

“I’ve had him for more than 30 years and I still have him,” Rosenthal said recently. In February, Rosenthal filed an annual accounting report of Gordineer’s assets, a court docket report shows.

Rosenthal said he knew Gordineer, Gordineer’s father and other family members. He said the younger Gordineer had been a criminal client. Rosenthal said he once had Gordineer, who is a veteran, in a home with his mother but now has him in a nursing home.

No family member of Gordineer could be reached for comment.

Rosenthal is also listed as conservator in another case, dating to 1989 involving Howard Ruffin Jr.

Ruffin’s niece, Erica Porter, said she has been his caregiver for the 100% disabled veteran the last four years. Other than her, Ruffin has little or no family alive, she said. “I’m all he has.”

In her four years of caring for Ruffin, she said she had never heard from Rosenthal until recently when she went to his office to request more money than the $700 a month she receives for Ruffin’s care. 

Porter said Rosenthal denied her request.

“My first time talking to him was actually last week,” Porter said recently of Rosenthal. “We haven’t heard from him or nothing.” 

Rosenthal said everyone wants to spend a ward’s money.

“If you are a conservator or guardian, the money belongs to the person you are trying to protect, and the laws of the state of Mississippi say you are supposed to conserve and build upon the money, if possible,” he said.

Most of Rosenthal’s conservatorship cases in Hinds County occurred before an updated law went into effect three years ago.

About 2,500 conservatorship cases have been filed in Mississippi since then.

The updated law, known as the Mississippi Guard and Protect Act, seeks to protect the rights of those unable to take care of themselves, said Beam, who co-chaired the 26-member committee that came up with the recommendations. It was the first update of the guardian and conservatorship law in 30 years.

The law distinguishes guardianship of the person from conservator of the estate, clarifies the role of a guardian/conservator in a ward’s life, specifies the basis for appointing a guardian/conservator through improved medical evaluation forms, encourages individualized planning and use of the least restrictive alternative. It also creates accountability between the guardian/conservator and the courts to prevent fraud and abuse. 

The law also mandates wellbeing reports.

The updated law applies to cases filed after Jan. 1, 2020, but a judge has the authority to apply the new law to older cases if no rights are violated.

In a 2021 state Supreme Court appeal, Hattiesburg attorney Carol Bustin said that, for decades, courts have treated conservatorships as mere ministerial actions and the imposition of conservatorships as matters of petitioners’ rights. 

Unless someone is a party in a conservatorship case, court records in cases like those of Gordineer and Ruffin are sealed, except for the brief descriptions placed on the court docket. 

Rosenthal said some things in the new law look good on paper, but accountability isn’t being strictly enforced.

The sister of one of Rosenthal’s wards questions the lawyer’s accountability.

“I think the rule, or unofficial rule, should be to talk to family members before they put people into a court-appointed conservatorship to make sure there is no one who can take over the responsibility,” said Linda Taylor of Memphis, whose brother, Edward Redmond, was one of Rosenthal’s wards.

Marine veteran Edward Redmond died in 2019 of natural causes after being a ward of his conservator for decades.

At one point, Rosenthal had Redmond living in a facility in south Mississippi, according to Taylor.

But Rosenthal was forced by court order to move Redmond to Jackson to be closer to family.

Taylor said her brother initially was able to spend time with family.

“In August 2019, however, Rosenthal forbade us to take him away from his assisted living residence to spend time with him. He even claimed he had a warrant out for my brother Robert’s arrest because he had violated that order and picked Edward up once, anyway.”

Redmond, a Marine veteran, was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic in the 1980s and became addicted to drugs. He was determined to be 100% disabled by the VA hospital. Redmond’s parents became guardians over his military and Social Security benefits.

In 1994, Redmond’s parents agreed to let Rosenthal become his guardian without fully understanding what they were consenting to, according to Taylor. She said she and another sister in Texas didn’t know anything about what was going on with their brother until after Rosenthal had already been court appointed guardian/conservator.

At one point, Redmond was allowed to live with Taylor and her husband in Memphis on a trial basis. During that time, Redmond overcame his addiction for a while. He had a great testimony about his victory over drugs. Rosenthal forced Redmond to move back to Jackson for unexplained reasons.

Prior to his death in 2019 under conservatorship, Edward Redmond showed the condition of his teeth. His sister believes he wasn’t getting the care he deserved.

Taylor said her brother was moved over the years to different locations throughout the state of Mississippi, and that all of those places Rosenthal chose were not approved by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Rosenthal said he won’t apologize for the care Redmond received in Jackson. Taylor wanted too much money for keeping Redmond, he said. “I’m not ashamed of what happened. I had a tremendous problem with her trying to get his money.”

Taylor said the family requested to have guardianship over Edward while allowing Rosenthal to continue being conservator over his money.

“Rosenthal refused,” she said. “The record speaks for itself.”

This project was produced by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, now part of Mississippi Today, in partnership with the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

The post Jackson attorney may be king of conservatorships in Mississippi appeared first on Mississippi Today.

The Conservatorship fight over Opal

Opal K. Smith celebrated her 93rd birthday in March under a conservatorship that for the past eight years has left her with no control over her finances or where she lives.

She is one of the 1.3 million people in the United States living under a legal system that allows someone else, often unrelated, to make personal, financial and medical decisions for them.

Her conservator has her living in an assisted living facility in Hattiesburg, about 35 miles from her home of Columbia. 

When reached via phone, Opal wouldn’t comment on the matter. However, in a court affidavit, she said: “I want out of this conservatorship now and into a home of my own in or near Columbia, Mississippi.”

Opal wants to go home and live with a sitter, and so do some family members, including her daughter, Nancy DeVoe, and Nancy’s husband, John. But Smith’s two other daughters filed the initial conservatorship petition in 2015 after her husband died, saying Smith was experiencing memory decline.

The fight over her conservatorship stretches from Mississippi to England.

In their petition to create a conservatorship over Opal, Nancy’s two sisters — Jill Kendrick Weber, then of Columbia, and Elizabeth Houser of Little Rock — blamed her for initiating the conservatorship. Neither could be reached for comment.

But their 2015 conservatorship petition said that, for approximately the last five years of their father’s life, Weber provided assistance and care for her parents as needed, and was motivated by their best interest.

Subsequent to their father’s death, the sisters said Nancy traveled to Mississippi from her residence in the United Kingdom in an attempt to control Opal and her assets.

They alleged Nancy engaged Opal in conduct and activities out of character for her and not in her best interest. They said Nancy procured a debit card in Opal’s name and compelled her to execute contracts and documents she was not capable of understanding.

Further, they said a physician had indicated Opal was unable to make informed decisions regarding her personal finances, health care, or other serious decisions pertaining to herself or her family.

“Accordingly, the petitioners contend that the Ward, Opal K. Smith, by reason of mental weakness, is incapable of managing her own estate,” the petition said.

Nancy said she never attempted to control her mother or her assets, nor did she engage her mother in any activities or conduct that a reasonable person could contend were out of character for her or not in her best interest. She also said she didn’t compel her mother to execute any contracts or documents.

John and Nancy DeVoe said the constitution mandates no one be deprived of liberty or property without due process of law. A conservatorship decree, they said, always deprives the individual of property and, in many cases, of liberty.

“Opal never had a chance to testify, present evidence, confront her accusers, or call witnesses,” they said in court papers opposing the ongoing conservatorship. 

Conservatorships are responsible for $50 billion in assets, according to a 2018 report by the National Council on Disability.

The Mississippi Administrative Office of Courts reports that 2,481 conservatorship petitions were filed between January 2019 and this past February. The figures include conservatorship petitions for both minors and adults.

READ: Jackson attorney may be king of conservatorships in Mississippi

In Mississippi, some court records appear to show prior to a 2020 update in guardian and conservatorship laws, that some judges didn’t expend much effort investigating conservatorship cases before approving petitions.

The Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting viewed court dockets from multiple counties, and records show in some cases, conservatorship petitions were approved the same day they were filed.

Attorney George Dickerman, an elder law expert and author in Riverside, California, said conservatorships should be a last resort, only when no reasonable alternatives are available.

Dickerman said sometimes an older person will need assistance but will not voluntarily agree to accept it. He said a conservatorship can be necessary when a perpetrator manipulates an older person and wrongfully takes money or property.

But Dickerman also said some unscrupulous individuals will use conservatorships as a license to steal.

Across the country, there is a hodgepodge of state laws when it comes to conservatorships, and often there are no requirements to record all financial transactions through a state’s software application. And there is no national database tracking the number of conservatorships in the country. 

The data available on conservatorships and the conditions them varies from state to state. And there is no mandate on a state or federal level for standardized requirements to become a conservator.

Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Dawn Beam, a former chancery judge, played an integral role in updating the state guardian and conservatorship law that took effect Jan. 1, 2020.

Beam told the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting there was a time when conservators — often family members of the person under conservatorship — would seek court approval to spend money on such things as swimming pools, four-wheelers and lavish vacations.

She said the goal of the updated law is to protect people with large estates as well as those with only Social Security benefits. It covers minors, older people and other adults unable to care for themselves.

There is a computer system now that allows courts to better manage cases, she said.

“It’s a lot easier to control money going out than trying to claw it back.”

The FBI elder fraud report for 2022 said total losses reported by those 60 and older were $3.1 billion, an increase of 84% from 2021. Although the average loss per victim was $35,101, more than 5,400 victims each lost more than $100,000.

“Our oath is to administer justice regardless of rich or poor,” Beam said. “We want to make sure we administer justice. We are doing what we have to do to protect an individual’s assets. We used to just focus on assets. We now have a wellness report that the court can require for the elderly.”

In most states, a judge decides whether to establish a conservatorship after a petition is filed stating why a person can’t manage his or her financial affairs or make appropriate decisions concerning personal care.

The Family Caregivers Alliance says a conservatorship is supposed to provide a higher degree of protection than alternatives, such as powers of attorneys, trusts and health care directives, due to court oversight.

Government agencies and human rights organizations report older people are more likely to experience neglect, both mental and physical, and more likely to have their assets broken up and sold off piece by piece. 

In Mississippi, the Department of Human Service reported 4,252 cases to its adult protective services. Of those, it initiated 4,110 investigations in 2022. August had the highest number — 407. 

Opal Smith on her 93rd birthday in March at the facility in Hattiesburg where she is assigned as part of her conservatorship. Credit: Photo courtesy of Nancy DeVoe

In September 2015, when Smith was put under a conservatorship, all three sisters were in town to see their father before he died. After his death, Nancy and her sisters disagreed about what to do about their mother. Nancy said any discussion should include their mother and opposed the conservatorship.

Her sisters initially were appointed co-conservators for their mother. However, a Lamar County chancery judge later replaced them with a third-party conservator because of a dispute. 

Smith’s conservator has changed three more times, and, since 2015, the fees drawn from her account to pay conservators total more than $160,000, according to the DeVoes. In court records, Smith’s estate was valued at almost $900,000 in 2021.

The DeVoes’ opposition to the conservatorship has led to a contentious court fight that could almost mirror that of Brittany Spears, who was under a conservatorship from 2008 until 2021.

In 2016, John and Nancy were ordered to post $10,000 bonds each before they could file any additional opposition to the conservatorship.

On. Jan. 30, Lamar County Chancery Judge Chad Smith, no relation to Opal Smith, ordered John DeVoe to pay $8,397.43 into Opal’s conservatorship account, fined Nancy $10,000 for contempt, and fired Opal’s lawyer because he said it was a conflict for the lawyer to represent both Nancy and Opal.

Nancy DeVoe had opposed the approval of $43,747,82 from Opal’s account to her conservator and ex-conservator in a January order. Chad Smith said in court papers that he had ordered and reiterated she was prohibited from seeking relief until she had posted the bond, which led to her being fined for contempt “due to her contemptuous conduct,” Judge Smith wrote in the Jan. 30 order.

“Nancy shall reimburse the conservatorship $10,000 in attorney’s fees. The amount represents the fees expended by the conservator litigating meritless opposition by Nancy during the time period requested,” he wrote.

Chad Smith warned that any future unsuccessful legal challenge resulting in the conservator incurring legal fees will result in the fees and expenses being imposed against those presenting an unsuccessful challenge.

The DeVoes, who live in England, have filed a court motion seeking to remove Chad Smith from Opal Smith’s case.

Chad Smith is the second judge to handle Opal Smith’s conservatorship case. The previous judge, M. Ronald Doleac, retired in 2018 after not seeking reelection.

The DeVoes maintain in court papers that Doleac granted a conservatorship petition on Smith despite insufficient process and without notice, evidence, or opportunity to defend. And they said the conservatorship letter was issued the same day, naming Opal’s daughters, Houser and Weber, co-conservators, which they say was a violation of the law.

A typical docket report of a successful Mississippi conservatorship case should show, before the judgment or decree is filed: a sworn petition, summons issued to the target of the conservatorship and a relative, two sworn certificates from licensed physicians or a physician and a licensed psychologist and an entry showing a hearing was held at least seven days after the petition.

After the decree, the docket report should show the letters of conservatorship were issued and entry of a bond securing the performance of the fiduciary duties owed by the conservator to the target and an inventory of the newly created conservatorship estate, to be filed once each year during the term of the conservatorship.

Most conservatorship records in Mississippi are sealed from viewing for anyone not a party to the case. A judge has the discretion whether to make public any documents in a case.

According to a transcript from a July 2022 hearing in Opal’s case, attorney Carol Bustin of Hattiesburg, representing Nancy and Opal, argued that “due process requires fairness. It requires that everybody have their day in court, and Opal Smith never had her day in court. There was never any testimony. She never testified as to whether she wanted this conservatorship or whether she agreed with it, or why she didn’t agree with it.”

Attorney Larry Buffington of Collins, a former chancery judge, represented Opal’s other two daughters. Buffington said at the July hearing, “Maybe I did it wrong for 20 years, but I don’t know that I ever conducted a hearing unless there was a request from somebody on a conservatorship. Most of those actually were done in chambers.”

In a court order, Chad Smith said Doleac initially set the matter for a hearing on Aug. 10, 2015, but continued it until Sept. 15, 2015. Doleac then scheduled a trial for Nov. 3, 2015. 

What occurred isn’t documented. Chad Smith said state law doesn’t require a record to be made of the trial and that a judge has the discretion to decide what evidence to hear.

In August 2016, Doleac replaced the daughters, without their opposition, as conservators, replacing them with attorney Derek Arrington. Seven months later, Doleac appointed Arrington’s law partner, G. Neil Rogers, as substitute conservator. 

Judge Smith, who took over the case in 2019, granted Rogers’ request in 2021 to withdraw as conservator and appointed attorney William Andrews III as his substitute. He also named Andrews to serve as Opal’s guardian, meaning he was given responsibility for Smith’s care and wellbeing as well as control of her finances.

Doleac wouldn’t address the Opal Smith case specifically but said there is a process for the DeVoes to appeal the case, which they did in 2021. A three-judge panel of the state high court denied the request in January 2022 without comment.

John DeVoe said that with them being in England, it has been difficult to find a lawyer to handle their appeal. He said some lawyers they contacted expressed reservations about taking the case since it would be going against a judge.

The DeVoes filed the paperwork themselves seeking Smith’s removal from the case to the state Supreme Court. The motion was filed with the court April 18. It has yet to be decided.

“You can’t be on the bench and not be criticized,” Doleac said in a phone interview. “We have an excellent judiciary in the state. I have never seen anyone take a shortcut.”

This project was produced by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, now part of Mississippi Today, in partnership with the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

The post The Conservatorship fight over Opal appeared first on Mississippi Today.

On this day in 1925

MAY 19, 1925

In this 1963 photo, civil rights leader Malcolm X speaks to reporters in Washington. Credit: Associated Press

Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska. When he was 14, a teacher asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up and he answered that he wanted to be a lawyer. The teacher chided him, urging him to be realistic. “Why don’t you plan on carpentry?” 

In prison, he became a follower of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. In his speeches, Malcolm X warned Black Americans against self-loathing: “Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the color of your skin? Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose and the shape of your lips? Who taught you to hate yourself from the top of your head to the soles of your feet? Who taught you to hate your own kind?” 

Prior to a 1964 pilgrimage to Mecca, he split with Elijah Muhammad. As a result of that trip, Malcolm X began to accept followers of all races. In 1965, he was assassinated. Denzel Washington was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of the civil rights leader in Spike Lee’s 1992 award-winning film.

The post On this day in 1925 appeared first on Mississippi Today.

Grit, toughness, talent – name it – Booneville’s Hallie Burns showed it

HATTIESBURG — Toughness, grit and playing with pain are terms we usually associate with the manly sport of football. Here Thursday, at the Mississippi High School Softball State Championships, is living, limping proof that those terms also can apply to young ladies who play fast-pitch softball.

Meet Hallie Burns, an 18-year-old senior at Booneville High, who pitched and helped hit the Blue Devils to a 7-4 victory over West Marion for a third straight Class 3A State Championship. And, yes, she’s the same Hallie Burns who helped Booneville win a second straight state basketball championship less than three months ago. She’s the same Hallie Burns who has signed a softball scholarship to play for Ole Miss.

Rick Cleveland

Burns now has been the winning pitcher in six straight state championship series games over three years, allowing only two earned runs over 40-plus innings. None of the previous five victories were nearly as difficult — or painful — as the one Thursday when she went six innings despite painful left hip and back injuries that had her literally limping to first base after her two singles she added to the Blue Devils’ cause.

How bad was she hurting?

“It felt like a knife stabbing me in the back,” she said after the Booneville victory celebration.

Burns’ hip and back woes are a long, fairly complicated story that we’ll try to make as short and simple as possible. Pitching softball, the fast-pitch variety, requires much violent twisting and resulting torque of the left hip (for a right-hander, as is Burns). She first experienced fairly serious pain toward the end of her 10th grade season two years ago.

“It doesn’t bother me much when I’m fresh but over the course of a season it wears down,” she said. It probably didn’t help this year when the day after Booneville won the state basketball championship, she was pitching softball.

The usual wear and tear was exacerbated last Saturday night when she slid into second with a double in Booneville’s 4-3, North State Championship victory over Kossuth.

“I jammed my hip,” Burns said. “It was all out of whack.”

She spent Sunday alternating ice baths with back rest. She missed Monday’s practice for a doctor visit. But Tuesday night she pitched the Blue Devils to a 6-1 victory, giving up three nits, no unearned runs and striking out 10 in Game One of the best of three championship series.

On Wednesday, she rested. On Thursday Booneville coach Jessica Taylor asked her, “Can you go?”

“Yes ma’am,” Burns answered, and go she did. The first two innings — actually the first eight outs – were a breeze, and then on the last batter of the third inning (with a no-hitter going), something happened.

“Something in my hip or sacrum slipped,” she said.

The next three innings were pretty much a matter of pain tolerance and no small amount of courage. She didn’t have her best stuff, but she persevered, striking out 11 and giving up just four hits and two earned runs over six innings. She threw 76 pitches, 60 for strikes.

Booneville plated six runs in the sixth inning to take a 7-3 lead. With a 7-4 lead going into the bottom of the seventh, Burns told Taylor, her coach, she should put Olivia Garrett in to pitch the last inning, saying she had little gas left in her tank and that Garrett would give them the best chance to win.

“She sacrificed her last inning pitching,” Taylor said. “How selfless is that?”

But Burns didn’t come out of the game. She shifted to third base. And wouldn’t you know it, with two outs the last West Marion batter hit a two-hopper to Burns at third. She fielded it cleanly and threw a perfect strike to first base, clinching her fifth state championship godmedal (two basketball, three softball).

Over five softball seasons, she has achieved a pitching record of 71-10, striking out a whopping 1,062 batters. 

When a sports writer half-jokingly suggested that she should spend the next month doing nothing but resting she laughed and replied, “Right now, that sounds pretty good.”

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ACLU challenges school district’s dress code for trans youth in graduation ceremony

The ACLU has sued the Harrison County School District over its refusal to allow a transgender student to wear a dress to her graduation ceremony. 

The student, referred to as L.B. in the ACLU press release, has been openly transgender for her entire high school career and her gender is known by classmates and teachers at Harrison Central High School, according to court documents. The complaint also says that throughout her high school career, she has “frequently and consistently worn dresses, skirts, and traditionally feminine clothing items and accessories to school and school-sponsored events and activities, without issue or repercussion.” 

Last week, Harrison Central High School Principal Kelly Fuller called L.B. to the office to inquire what she was planning to wear to graduation, according to the complaint. Upon being told that L.B. planned to wear a dress, Fuller replied that she could not do this and would need to wear what the boys were wearing, adding that this conversation was prompted by Harrison County Superintendent Mitchell King calling the school and asking what transgender students would wear to graduation.

“My graduation is supposed to be a moment of pride and celebration and school officials want to turn it into a moment of humiliation and shame,” said L.B. in an ACLU press release. “The clothing I’ve chosen is fully appropriate for the ceremony and the superintendent’s objections to it are entirely unfair to myself, my family, and all transgender students like me. I have the right to celebrate my graduation as who I am, not who anyone else wants me to be.” 

In a conversation between King and L.B.’s mother Samantha Brown, it was communicated that if L.B. wore a dress to the ceremony, she would not be allowed to participate. 

The lawsuit alleges gender discrimination as a violation of constitutional rights and federal law, specifically Title IX, the First Amendment’s freedom of expression clause, and the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. The temporary restraining order asks the court to prohibit the district from taking action for alleged noncompliance with its graduation dress code policies. 

The Harrison County School District did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.

According to the press release, the district has not taken any action to check the planned outfits of any other students. 

The Harrison Central High School graduation is scheduled for Saturday, May 20, at 6:30 p.m. 

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