- Associated Press - Thursday, June 23, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - A circuit judge has issued an order temporarily barring the Hinds County district attorney from having anything to do with the county’s grand juries or trying cases in the judge’s court.

Hinds County Circuit Judge Jeff Weill issued the order Thursday, citing Robert Shuler Smith’s Wednesday arrest on six misdemeanor charges that he was illegally aiding defendants. Smith’s office didn’t immediately return a phone call seeking comment on Weill’s order.

Weill said he was banning Smith from grand jury work “in a sincere effort to ‘protect the integrity of the judicial process’ from any additional perceived impropriety,” saying not only could Smith not appear, but that he couldn’t consult with or direct his staff. Weill said staff members could continue to work with grand jurors without Smith’s involvement. He did caution assistant district attorneys not to use a grand jury “to serve in retaliation, in any manner, for the district attorney’s recent criminal charges and arrest.”

One of four circuit judges in the county, Weill said Smith is violating a secret order by the presiding Hinds County Circuit Judge Tomie Green that followed a secret report by Ridgeland lawyer Amy Whitten to stop abusing the grand jury process.

“The district attorney has been engaged in improper use and abuse of the sacred grand jury process,” Weill wrote. “Despite a clear ruling requiring regularity in the grand jury process, the improprieties have continued until very recently, according to sealed findings submitted earlier this week.”

Weill revealed the existence of the report in the same order where he criticized Smith for breaking grand jury secrecy by revealing that he had subpoenaed Lee McDivitt, an investigator for Attorney General Jim Hood, to appear before a county grand jury. McDivitt filed the charges against Smith after an investigation by Hood and the FBI.

Smith can still try cases in the other judges’ courts.

Weill said that Smith’s actions and inactions could be presented to the grand jury for possible indictment and asked Green to determine whether she needs to appoint a temporary district attorney until Smith’s charges are resolved.

Hood charged Smith after Smith summoned multiple employees of Hood before a grand jury, disputing Hood’s power to legally prosecute certain Hinds County residents. Smith denies illegal acts, saying that Hood, a fellow Democrat, is trying to destroy his credibility as he investigates Hood’s employees for wrongdoing.

At a March 3 hearing before Hinds County Court Judge Melvin Priester Sr., Smith told Priester that the attorney general’s office didn’t have the authority to prosecute any cases in Hinds County without his permission, unless directed by the governor, or unless there were legal findings that such intervention was needed. Priester later called Smith’s behavior at the hearing “raucous and unprofessional.”

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Follow Jeff Amy at: https://twitter.com/jeffamy. Read his work at https://bigstory.ap.org/author/jeff-amy

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