a conversation with Rice on Mississippi Justice Institute

Aaron Rice is director of the Mississippi Justice Institute (MJI), an arm of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank. The Madison resident is a graduate of Mississippi State University and the University of Mississippi School of Law, and was recently awarded the 2019 Buckley Award, which is given to young people who have contributed to the conservative movement. Rice and his wife, Kelly Ann, have four children. He recently spoke to Sun Senior Staff Writer Anthony Warren about MJI and his role.

What is MJI?

“It’s a public interest law firm that provides free legal representation to Mississippians to defend their constitutional rights. Broadly speaking, the purpose of the Mississippi Justice institute is to protect the American Dream. There are promises of freedom of opportunity in the U.S. and the state constitutions but there hasn’t been any group in Mississippi to enforce them. That’s why we do the work we do.”

Who are the people you help?

“The people whose rights are most likely to be taken away are ordinary people and small business owners who can’t afford an attorney or lobbyist.”

What kind of case does the institute take on?

“Examples really fall into five broad categories: educational choice, barriers to entrepreneurship (I also refer to that as the right to earn an honest living.), property rights, free speech and government transparency and accountability. Those are our areas of focus, but we also would consider cases outside of those areas.

“We do not handle criminal cases, domestic relations cases such as divorce, child custody or other family disputes, lawsuits seeking money damages, lawsuits against private parties, cases involving government conspiracies or cases involving government corruption or mismanagement.”

Let’s talk for a minute about some of the cases you do handle. Give me an example of a case the institute has been involved in regarding educational choice.

“Right now, we are representing some parents who send their kids to charter schools in a lawsuit that was brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). That suit is seeking to strike down some of the provisions of the Charter School Act in Mississippi. That case (went) before the Mississippi Supreme Court June 19. In that case, we’re seeking to defend the charter school act and show that (the provisions being challenged) are constitutional.”

How did that case fair in the lower courts?

“We won at the chancery court. Southern Poverty Law Center appealed the ruling.”

Was that in Hinds County Chancery Court?

“That’s right.”

How many attorneys does MJI employ?

“What we do is recruit attorneys in the private sector to provide pro bono work to help us with our cases. For example, in the charter school case, Mike Wallace, who is at the Wise Carter law firm, is helping us.”

Is it easy to get attorneys to help?

“It actually is. I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the response we’ve gotten. Obviously, as a relatively newer group, we don’t have the problem of having too many cases right now. But when we do, we’ve gotten a very good response. I think that is because, as I mentioned earlier, there hasn’t been a group in Mississippi to help enforce the constitutional rights we’re interested in. For attorneys interested in providing pro bono services in this area, there hasn’t been an outlet they’ve identified to work with. We’ve been able to present them with that new opportunity.”

You mention being a younger group. When was MJI started?

“The Mississippi Justice Institute was started three years ago by Mike Hurst.”

How many hours are put in on these cases? How many hours do you put in? 

“I couldn’t give you an accurate estimate. Mike Hurst and my predecessor Shad White worked on the charter school case. I worked on that case. Mike Wallace has worked on that case. It’s been going on since 2016, and there’s been a lot of work involved.

“On the flip side, a lot of times we have cases that get resolved pretty quickly, so we have the opposite situation. We’re able to make a big difference on an issue without putting three years of work into it.”

How many cases has MJI taken on in it’s history?

“We litigated the taxicab case to the Mississippi Supreme Court. The charter school case and the Open Meetings Act case have gone to the Mississippi Supreme Court. That number will go up in the (coming) weeks or months. Most of the cases we’ve worked on have not gone to litigation.

“We also will be involved in litigation in a different way, by filing amicus briefs. We just recently filed one in a case involving a Mississippi company called. (The Sun) ran an op-ed about that. A group of business owners started a business that mapped property using geospatial technology. The Mississippi Board of Licensure for Professional Engineers and Surveyors tried to stop them saying it was unlicensed surveying. That is pending in the Fifth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals.”

Have MJI lost any cases?

“The taxicab case mentioned earlier. We went before the Mississippi Supreme Court and it was dismissed on a technical issue. Essentially, the court decided the clients did not have standing to bring suit at the time because they had not applied for a permit and were rejected (for one) before bringing the case. The court did not decide on the merits of the dispute.”

What was the issue in that case?

“We represented two would-be taxicab owners in Mississippi who wanted to open a taxi company in Jackson. Essentially, there are a lot of regulations around the opening of a new taxi company that made it virtually impossible to do. They have to have a certain number of cabs. They have to have an office location in the city limits … As we viewed it, (the regulations) were put in place to protect (existing) taxicab owners from new companies.”

Has the city changed its rules regarding that matter?

“Not to my knowledge. We really haven’t made a firm decision one way or the other that (the rules) might be challenged again by us.”

What are your thoughts on winning the Buckley Award?

“It’s very validating at this point in my career to be able to receive an award like that. It was a really tough decision for me to leave my private law practice. I was at a firm I loved – Butler Snow. I loved the people I worked with. I enjoyed the work. One of the big questions I thought about when deciding to take this job was whether I could make enough of a difference to sacrifice leaving private practice. To receive this eight months after making the move reinforces it was a right decision and a lot more lies ahead. I’m just happy to be part of bringing the award to the Mississippi Center for Public Policy and its legal arm. I consider a team award for all of us.”

For more information, log on to http://www.msjustice.org.

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