Chancery Court Judge Breland Hilburn has answered a state Supreme Court's order and offered to resign, if that's what the court wants. But he added, it would be a first for him.
Hilburn, in answering a motion in the Singing River Health System case he's overseeing, told the Mississippi Supreme Court, "at no time did I schedule a secret meeting with anyone ... at no time have I improperly discussed any Jackson County Chancery Court issues."
Hilburn is presiding over lawsuits filed in Chancery Court in Jackson County to prevent termination of the county hospital system's employee pension plan.
One group of attorneys for about 17 retirees has worked out a settlement in federal court. Attorneys representing 200 retirees, the most vocal and visible, have broken away, refused to attend federal mediation and vowed to fight in Chancery and Circuit courts for a better, more secure settlement for the retirees. The settlement class is roughly 3,100, the majority of whom are still employed at the hospitals.
A federal settlement was announced last month, but Hilburn was set to hear motions by attorneys Earl Denham and Harvey Barton on Jan. 13, asking that Hilburn step down from the state case.
The two taped Hilburn on Jan. 12, entering an out-of-court meeting in Biloxi with a trustee from the hospital system, an attorney hired by Jackson County to handle SRHS issues, lawyers for some of the retirees, the fiduciary agent hired to oversee the pension fund, the special master in the case and attorneys with SRHS.
After the meeting Hilburn entered an order stopping all litigation in Chancery Court and cancelling the Jan. 13 court hearing.
In their motion to the Supreme Court, Denham and Barton said they were left out of the proceeding and filed a motion for emergency relief. They have termed it a secret and exclusive meeting with a presiding judge in a case.
In his response to the Supreme Court, Hilburn said, it has been his practice to meet with Britt Singletary at his Biloxi office. Singletary is a special master handling certain aspects of the case. He told the court that when he arrived on Jan. 12 and saw "almost all those involved in the federal litigation were there" he told them there would be no discussion of state court matters, and asked for an update on the federal proceedings.
He said it was not an improper meeting and found it doesn't even give the appearance of impropriety. But he added that the SRHS litigation in state court has been "a very difficult case to manage; particularly because of the hostility that has developed ..."
He called the federal settlement "the only sensible and practicable solution to the litigation in both state and federal court."
He said, "I realize that Barton and Denham have extensively used every form of media in what I strongly feel is an unwarranted attack utilizing a distortion of the truth."