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Elected judges sometimes come under the influence of the campaign contributions they receive, says STOP member

Opinions vary on elective vs. appointive for judges

JACKSON — Not long ago, Mississippi Supreme Court judges were appointed by the governor.

Nowadays, judges are elected to their positions.

Brad Morris, editor of MS POL, a newsletter which covers Mississippi politics, believes that whether one is elected or appointed, the same battle is going on, either way. But when the governor appoints one to a position on the Supreme Court, who will be the next governor becomes a more important decision.

“What you might see, in my opinion if (Supreme Court judges) were appointed, is whoever the governor was would lean toward the middle-of-the-road candidates.

“I think we’ve already established, and most folks agree, that in many of the races there is more of a fine line between candidates than there has been in the past, philosophically speaking.”

Morris does not feel strongly one way or the other.

The decision of whether to elect or appoint an individual to the Supreme Court carries pros and cons both ways.

“We have historically supported appointed, but we’re a non-partisan organization, so we don’t participate in this process,” said Blake Wilson, president of the Mississippi Economic Council (MEC). The MEC deals with issues, not individuals.

Chip Reno, with STOP Lawsuit Abuse in Mississippi (STOP), said that although changing the election process of Supreme Court judges to an appointed position is not something that is high on STOP’s agenda, STOP would prefer an appointed versus electorate form of bringing judges into office.

“I don’t want to speak for all businesses,” Reno said. “I think most of the campaign finance reform laws and this blurring of the lines between Republican and Democrat is relatively new, and I would say that most people don’t even know there’s an issue there to understand, much less to breaking it down to understanding those issues.”

The reason Reno feels this way is probably a similar reason many professionals would prefer appointed rather than elected judges. “Elected judges sometimes come under the influence of the campaign contributions they receive,” Reno explained. “And of all institutions that should be fair and impartial when a plaintiff and defendant are before them, it’s a court. The idea of appointing at least appellate judges would increase the stakes of gubernatorial contest. But appointment decisions are the type of decisions governors have to make around the country.”

Dick Wilcox, president of the Business and Industry Political Education Committee, believes many business people think the appointive process has the potential for producing better-educated and more highly experienced judges.

“That’s not to say that it’s impossible to get quality people through the election process,” he said. “But there’s a segment of the legal profession who would not be willing to run for office but would accept an appointment. I think those are some of the very high quality respected legal minds that we need on our courts.”

Even though the appointment process may be preferable to the electorate process for some business professionals, the politics are not entirely removed by going to an appointive process. But, Reno pointed out, it does give access to a different type of person.

“One of the examples frequently used is that experienced attorneys who may be in the later years of their law practice would likely serve on one of the appellate courts if appointed,” he said. “It’s highly unlikely that those type people would seek elective office. They would not want to go through the struggle and sometime unpleasant aspects of running for office. So the system loses access to these experienced, fair-minded, high-quality people because currently we say the only way to get there is through election.”

The election process a judge must go through in order to win a seat on the Supreme Court or almost any court in Mississippi may be the choice of the people, but it becomes an extraordinarily expensive procedure for many candidates to go through.

According to the Secretary of State’s office, judicial candidates may not receive more than $5,000 from any single individual or political action committee. And corporations can contribute no more than $1,000 per year to any candidate for any office.

But there are other rules candidates for judge must follow in the state of Mississippi as well.

Brant Brantley, executive director of the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance, explained that candidates are subject to limitations pursuant to Canon 7 of the Code of Judicial Conduct. This canon applies not only to judges who are candidates for judicial office but also to attorneys who are not judges but are candidates for judicial office.

The more significant provisions of Canon 7, according to Brantley, include that no judge may solicit or accept campaign funds. Only the candidate’s committee is allowed to do so. There are also restrictions on when a candidate’s committee can solicit or accept funds. Committees cannot solicit funds earlier than 60 days before qualifying deadline or later than 90 days after the last election.

Another rule candidates are subject to is that they must run non-partisan campaigns. They are prohibited from identifying themselves with any political party. Judicial candidates are also limited or prohibited to a degree in what they can or cannot say during the course of a campaign. A judicial candidate is also not to make any promises other than that they will perform their duties faithfully or impartially. They may not promise they will rule a certain way.

Candidates are also not to misrepresent their qualifications or their identity or those of their opponents. That does not necessarily mean that a candidate cannot discuss their own judicial record or history. On the contrary, they may do so as long as the information they present is accurate.

Campaign financing is an issue debated among many members of the business community.

Reno believes the amount of money being poured into the judicial elections today is “beyond ridiculous.”

According to Reno, there are four states in which judicial elections are being held this year, including Alabama, Ohio, Michigan and Mississippi. “Of those four states, ours has the least amount of money in it (judicial elections),” he said.

And although Reno finds the amount of money being pumped into campaigns insane, he said, “I don’t care if Judge Joe Blow gets a million dollars. If they’re unable to explain to the public what their philosophy is, (the voting public) has no idea what they stand for.”

Wilcox does not believe a restriction on donating to a campaign fund can be placed on citizens in a free society.

“You can’t restrict dollar amounts (donated) from individuals or any entity, but people will figure out ways to spend whatever funds they want to allocate to the process. If PACs are limited, people go out and create more PACs. If wealthy individuals are restricted, they give money to their secretaries, wives or children to contribute. I don’t think limiting contributions accomplishes anything.”

As Wilson put it, “You can’t very well run for office without money.”

What Wilcox believes is important, however, is that the public knows who is involved in making contributions.

“The public has a right to know who is involved in their election process,” he said. “We have laws that require disclosure. The problem is the enforcement mechanism is extremely weak.”

Morris believes campaign contributions are important in the election process.

“It’s just more expensive today to run a modern campaign. Media is much more ex
pensive. Media also plays a much heavier role now than 30 or 40 ye
ars ago. If one candidate is raising money and has resources, although limited by the code of ethics on how they can approach the public, a campaign is a campaign. It especially takes

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