JACKSON — Most of the cases that go before courts involve money in some way, and most cases themselves have some type of big business angle to them, whether it is an industry suing a company, a disagreement between people or the breaking of a contract.
For that reason, members of the business community should pay close attention to the upcoming judicial elections said Brad Morris, editor of MS POL newsletter, which covers Magnolia State politics.
“The philosophy of a judge in dealing with (certain cases) has an important bearing on the outcome of the case,” he said. “With that in mind, I think that’s why you see a lot of increased attention not just by the public but by some very distinct groups in the state.”
The way judicial races are divided, Morris said, is basically between trial attorneys and business interests.
“In short, your trial attorney interest or consumer advocates want people on the court who have a philosophy or a mindset that is consumer- or plaintiff-oriented, and business people want people on the court who protect the mindset from a business point of view.”
In some ways, the lines are more or less distinct between candidates, but Morris insisted, no matter how gray those lines are always present.
But a judge’s mindset or philosophy does not make him or her unfair, Morris said.
“We all have our own world view. It doesn’t mean they’re all leaning to one side, it just means when the facts are presented to them, they’re going to have a predisposition to lean one (way) or another. It’s all about personality and philosophy and their approach to things. And how they do that can have an affect on one side or the other.”
For Morris, he sees personal integrity as extremely important.
“I think most folks would agree. Background experience and undeniably (a judge’s) personal philosophy, which is becoming increasingly clearer in our races now.”
Those at the Business and Industry Political Education Committee (BIPEC) and members of the Mississippi Trial Lawyers Association (MTLA) have two very different points of view about the upcoming judicial elections.
“(The upcoming judicial elections are) important to the business community and of equal importance is what the Legislature does,” said Dick Wilcox, president of BIPEC.
“The business community gets excited and interested in what the Legislature does. They ought to get just as excited and interested in what the two highest courts in our states do.”
Although judicial candidates have cannons that prohibit them from discussing controversial issues, it is still rather easy to find out what a particular candidate’s philosophy is by looking at which group is supporting which candidates.
“The biggest difference in judicial candidates is those that are balanced in their views and really want to apply the law as it exists, whatever the law is,” Wilcox said. “Then there is a different group that in our opinion has an agenda. They tend to be the more activist-type judges who have their own ideas and particularly what tends to happen this day and time (is) the political forces tend to be divided between those (who are) balanced and judges who are consistent.”
This year in North Mississippi, incumbent Supreme Court Justice Kay Cobb of Oxford will go up against Judge Percy Lynchard of Hernando.
In another North Mississippi race, Chief Justice Lenore Prather faces Chuck Easley of Columbus. Richard Bowen of Iuka was in the race as well, but the Mississippi Secretary of State’s office confirmed that Bowen had withdrawn.
Also in North Mississippi, is a Court of Appeals race in the First Congressional District, in which plaintiff trial lawyer David “Tony” Chandler will go up against incumbent Rook Moore.
In the Southern Supreme Court District, incumbent Justice Oliver Diaz, McComb Circuit Judge Keith Starrett and Billy Joe Landrum will challenge one another in the upcoming elections.
In a Central Mississippi Supreme Court race, incumbent Justice Jim Smith faces Vicksburg Circuit Judge Frank Vollor.
This year BIPEC is recommending Cobb and Lynchard, from North Mississippi, and Prather. In Central Mississippi, their recommendation is for Smith and in Southern Mississippi BIPEC recommends Starrett.
BIPEC is also recommending, in the First Congressional District in North Mississippi, incumbent Judge Moore, who has a family background in the banking business.
Lance Stevens, president of the MTLA, said his association does not endorse judicial candidates.
“In fact, our bylaws prohibit our political action committee (PAC) from donating a dime to judicial elections,” Stevens said. “MTLA membership is very diverse and I personally know of members on both sides of virtually every race.”
Stevens said the MTLA’s greatest asset is not the money they donate, but the respect that attorneys have in the community when it comes to understanding political candidates and judges.
“We’re pretty vocal,” he said.
And although Wilcox and others in the business community might see the MTLA as being an opponent of the business lobby in judicial and other races, Stevens did not agree with this viewpoint.
“BIPEC, IMPAC (Improve Mississippi Political Action Committee) (the leading business PACs) and MEC (Mississippi Economic Council) leadership say they oppose ‘populist’ judicial candidates, which means judges who believe that justice is for everybody, not just an elite class of wealthy individuals,” Stevens said. “The MEC even defines populist jurisprudence in their own literature as ‘the interpretation of law in a manner which considers and attempts to promote the interest of the common citizen.’ I don’t know about you, but that sounds like the kind of judge every citizen in this state wants, including me. And that’s the judges they don’t endorse.”
And according to Stevens, a nationwide study released just a couple of months ago proved that Mississippi has less lawsuits per capita than any state in the country — fewer lawsuits than anybody.
“The BIPEC propaganda is a fraud,” he said. “Not a mistake…a fraud.”
Justice Jim Roberts of Pontotoc, a former judge on the Mississippi Supreme Court, believes any person who becomes a member of the judiciary is both honor bound and legally bound to look at the issues and actions involved and then make their decision.
“The job of the court as I see it, the job of the justice, is to abide by the code of judicial conduct and decide fairly,” Roberts said.
Though some may not think the courts are working the way they should, Roberts thinks they are.
“One never knows until a judge takes the bench how that person is going to perform. It’s certainly not proper in my opinion to have a judge swear or promise that he or she is going to vote a certain way regardless of the issue. He or she is going to analyze the issue, weigh it as fairly as possible and then vote the way he or she feels she should according to the case.”
Roberts believes any group has the right to study the courts and that any group who conducts those studies has the right and the obligation to write what they think about the courts. But, he conceded, “I also would hate to see the court or a judge or any court become the total captive of any particular group.”
“When I was a member of the court, I certainly didn’t like what any of them (groups) had to say on some days, but I certainly respected their right to say it.
“What we are seeing that is bothersome to me, and I certainly don’t have the answer to the question, is the incredib
le amount of money that is spent on all campaigns and on judicial campaign
s. I do not think justice ought to be for sale.”
To sum it up, Roberts said, everyone wants their day in court. And, he added, “there’s an old saying that all any man wants is a fair advantage. Human nature says there’s