Judicial Elections Recap

By: Lance Stevens


While the November election provided crazy enthusiasm and a blitz of media coverage for the presidential and senatorial election in this state, many lawyers and political observers were enthusiastically monitoring the numerous judicial elections on the ballot. Importantly, these elections are non-partisan by statute and the manner in which the committees are allowed to address the campaign are also guided by Canon 5 of the Code of Judicial Conduct.


Largely unnoticed was the fact that three Court of Appeals races in Districts 2, 3 and 5 were on the ballot and the three incumbents, Judge Leslie King, Judge Larry Roberts and Judge David Ishee, respectively, were re-elected without opposition.


The four Supreme Court races yielded shocking results, as three of the four most tenured Justices, including the long tenured Chief Justice Jim Smith, were resoundingly defeated.


The totals in Supreme Court District 1 (Central District) allowed challenger Jim Kitchens a comfortable majority on the first ballot, avoiding a costly and potentially problematic run-off. Kitchens concluded the race with a remarkable 53.48% of the vote, as Smith claimed only 36.02%. Former Judge Ceola James garnered 10.49% of the vote.


The tale of the tape in this race comes from the Metro counties. As the Kitchens campaign hoped, he carried Hinds County 63% to 26% (a 37,000 vote margin). To the surprise of many, Kitchens carried Madison County 54% to 40% (a 6,300 vote margin). With a strong showing in the rest of the district, this vote margin became unbeatable when Smith’s home county, Rankin, gave the incumbent a paltry 50.46% of the vote (Smith carried the county by 70% in 2000) and a mere 2,700 vote net. When this vote total was posted, I received a text message immediately from a leading political consultant which succinctly stated, "Kitchens wins."


A variety of factors, some of which are too sensitive to discuss in this public forum, were likely responsible for this outcome. The consensus of the experts seems to be that the leading factors were an excellent, hard working challenger, a superb TV advertising campaign, a well-organized ground game (QB’ed by Sam Hall, a very hot political commodity now) that included a massive mail program from interested lawyers, lengthy Obama coattails in selected areas and...well...some secret stuff.


In District 2 (Southern District), Randy "Bubba" Pierce unseated Justice Oliver Diaz by a stunning 58% to 42% majority. Like Smith, a very disappointing performance in his home county of Harrison netted Diaz only an 1,800 vote lead that quickly evaporated throughout the remainder of the district.


The factors most often attributed to Pierce’s success are his engaging personality and generally excellent community reputation, Diaz’s hard fought (yet unsuccessful) attempt to mitigate the damage of the baseless criminal indictments against him and a brutal third party [LEAA] negative advertising campaign defaming Justice Diaz that was harshly criticized by the Canon 5 special committee on elections and demonized in the print media. However, it cannot be argued with any legitimacy that these ads fell on deaf ears. They were misleading; they were vicious; they were effective. The author of those ads does not want to meet Jennifer Diaz in a dark alley.


District 3 (Northern District) had two less competitive races, largely due to fundraising differences, poor campaign management by the unsuccessful candidates and very well-liked, highly qualified candidates on the winning end.


Appellate Judge David Chandler mauled sitting Justice Chuck Easley by a 2-to-1 margin. Easley lost every single county, occasionally be a 4-to-1 margin, and with the exception of Quitman County, lost every one by double digits. Chandler’s hefty fundraising and his now legendary campaign work ethic were clearly big factors in this outcome.


Incumbent Justice Ann Lamar easily defeated challenger Gene Barton by a 62-38% margin. Lamar, the Barbour appointee, had solid roots in the law enforcement/prosecutorial field, the Republican Party and the trial bar. Barton’s unsuccessful campaign was nonetheless buoyed by a hard working candidate and one of the hardest working political wives in recent memory.


The final fundraising numbers, which will be insightful on all the races, will not be available until January of next year. I will provide a short update when those have been finalized.


Note: County-by-county certified vote totals are available at http://www.sos.state.ms.us/elections/2008/08%20Judicial/Judicial%20District%20Special%20Election.asp