Newell v. State: Separation of Power Principles in Mississippi

Written by: Donald Campbell

When I practiced law, I remember a conversation with a senior attorney about a case when, in response to a statement I made, the attorney simply said “Newell v. State.”  It was said in the same way that someone would say “blue” when asked the color of the sky.  So I nodded and ran back to my office to find out what Newell v. State was about.  I discovered that Newell is the foundation for all of the State of Mississippi’s Rules of Court.  The holding: the judicial branch and not the legislature has the authority to establish procedural rules in the courts.  The Newell Court based the holding on the “fundamental constitutional concept of the separation of powers and the vesting of judicial powers in the courts.”  This means that when there is a conflict between a statute and a court rule on a procedural matter, the court rule prevails.  Newell itself invalidated a statute that prohibited a judge from giving jury instructions that were not provided by the parties.  The Supreme Court noted that the statute meant that a jury could be forced to deliberate without any jury instructions.  The Court held that the statute interfered with court procedures and was unconstitutional. 

Thereafter, in 1982, the Mississippi Supreme Court exercised the inherent authority first noted in Newell and adopted the Rules of Civil Procedure.  A litany of additional Rules followed, including:  Rules of Evidence (1986), Rules of Appellate Procedure (1995), and most recently the Rules of Criminal Procedure (2017). 

Newell held that statutes on procedural matters that conflict with court rules violate separation of powers and are invalid.  However, the legislature retains the authority to enact statutes that address court jurisdiction.  In short, statutes that conflict with procedural rules are invalid but statutes that address court jurisdiction are not.  As you can imagine, disputes arise over whether a particular requirement is procedural and jurisdictional.  Over the years, numerous cases have arisen asking the court to determine whether a particular matter is procedural or jurisdictional. In 2020, two opinions demonstrated the distinction between the two concepts.

City of Petal v. Gulf South Pipeline, 301 So. 3d 591 (Miss. 2020) is an annexation case.  After the chancellor ruled in favor of the City, Gulf South Pipeline sought to appeal.  There are two potential time frames for seeking an appeal of an annexation order. The first is Miss. Code Ann. § 21-1-21 which requires that an appeal be taken within 10 days of the judgment of the trial judge.  The second is the Mississippi Rules of Appellate Procedure which provide for 30 days to appeal.  Gulf South appealed within 30 days of the judgment but not within 10 days.  The Mississippi Supreme Court held that the time frame to appeal a judicial order is a procedural matter and therefore, pursuant to Newell, the longer time frame set out in the Rule applied.  The Court distinguished appeals from executive or legislative matters – where the legislature would have the authority to set out the procedural requirements.  It was because the legislature attempted to set the appeal time from one court to another that the statute violated separation of powers.

Gibson v. Bell, 2020 WL 5834453 (Miss. 2020), involved a suit brought by a borrower against a lender in county court.  The borrower won at trial court level and the lender sought to appeal to circuit court.  The lender filed the appealed, but failed to pay a cost bond in a timely manner – which was required by statute (Miss. Code Ann. § 11-51-79).  The circuit court dismissed the appeal.  The lender, relying on Newell, argued that the statutory requirement of a cost bond conflicted with Rule of Appellate Procedure 3(a) – which states that, as long as the notice of appeal is timely, the failure to take any other step does not impact the validity of the appeal – and that the Rule should apply.  The Court disagreed and held that the requirement of a cost bond is not a procedural but is instead jurisdictional which the legislature has the authority to set.  Therefore, because the cost bond was not timely filed, the circuit court lacked jurisdiction and properly dismissed the case.