The Mississippi Supreme Court has ordered Chancery Judge Breland Hilburn to hold a hearing on whether he and special master Britt Singletary should step down from the Singing River Health Systems pension case.
Making an exception
Hilburn, on Jan. 12, had stopped all litigation in the case, but the high court ruling Thursday ordered him to lift that stay long enough to consider a motion to recuse himself and Singletary, the special master he'd appointed.
The motion to recuse, or step down, was set to be heard Jan. 13, the day Hilburn stopped all litigation. It had been filed by two attorneys representing about 200 SRHS retirees, who sued when the county hospital system threatened their pensions.
When Hilburn canceled the recusal hearing, the attorneys -- Earl Denham and Harvey Barton -- sought emergency relief from the Supreme Court. In their request, they said Hilburn had not been fair with them and that he met with court officials and attorneys outside the courtroom, without including them. They followed Hilburn, filmed court officials coming and going from the meeting and provided the video as exhibits to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court ruled on the issue of Hilburn and Singletary and a recusal hearing and dismissed everything else.
Attorney Jim Reeves, who is set to be handling the federal settlement and class action for all 3,100 retirees, said in a statement Thursday the high court dismissed the "allegations of a secret or inappropriate meeting."
Hilburn, in his response to accusations, told the high court he believes the federal settlement is the best way to go and was trying to clear the way for that settlement when he stopped all litigation in the state Chancery Court. He accused Denham and Barton of trying to sabotage the settlement.
Barton, in a recent interview, called the settlement a bad deal -- "nothing more than a $150 million IOU" -- because SRHS is not financially stable enough to fund it. He said SRHS leaders who contributed to the failure are still there.
"The only ones who lost their jobs were the SRHS Board of Trustees -- the volunteers," Barton said. He said if Hilburn had been fair they wouldn't have had to hire a private detective.
In Singletary's response to the high court about participating in the meeting outside Chancery Court, he raised a technical question about whether Barton or his legal assistant had actually signed the affidavit required when Barton asked the judge to step down. Singletary and Reeves said that could be a big issue.