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Business backers: Supreme Court elections vital

The business community in Mississippi is united in endorsements for the Mississippi Supreme Court, and says the election is critical to continuing the progress made since tort reform legislation was passed in 2004.

A number of business advocacy groups are endorsing the following candidates in races for four slots on the Supreme Court:

• Northern District Place One. Incumbent Justice Ann Lamar, Senatobia. Her opponent in the race is attorney Gene Barton of Okolona.

• Northern District Place Two. Current Court of Appeals Judge David A. Chandler of Ackerman. His opponent is incumbent Justice Chuck Easley of Caledonia.

• Central District. Current Chief Justice James W. “Jim” Smith. His opponents are attorneys Jim Kitchens of Crystal Springs and Ceola James of Vicksburg.

• Southern District. Randy A. “Bubba” Pierce of Leakesville, current Chancery Judge for Greene, George and Jackson counties. His opponent is incumbent justice Oliver Diaz Jr. of Biloxi.

Dr. Randy Easterling, Vicksburg, chairman of the Mississippi State Medical Association political action committee (PAC), said the current election is crucial to maintaining progress that has been made.

“The monumental tort reform bill passed in 2004 is in danger if the right people are not elected to the Supreme Court,” Easterling said. “This has ramifications way beyond the medical community. Tort reform has allowed doctors to stay in Mississippi and continue seeing patients. And the business portion of the tort reform has kept small business alive and allowed for the revitalization of the Mississippi Gulf Coast after Katrina.”

Easterling said if the Supreme Court changes, that would open the possibility for key components of the 2004 tort reform bill to be ruled unconstitutional. He said if that were to happen, healthcare in Mississippi would be in jeopardy.

“The healthcare industry in Mississippi came dangerously close to imploding prior to the 2004 tort reform bill,” Easterling said. “To revisit the days of physicians leaving the state, and not being able to deliver babies or see patients in the emergency room, would put every Mississippian at risk.”

Easterling said it is important for Mississippians to realize we could be on the brink of a healthcare meltdown in Mississippi if progress is not maintained. He said tort reform has had some significant benefits. For example, the caps on non-economic damages have allowed insurance companies to drop their rates as much as 50 percent in some cases.

“We had been told by experts that tort reform would take five years to see a difference,” he said. “And we saw a difference in the first year and a half. Physicians are now able to stay in Mississippi and to do what we love best, which is taking care of our patients.”

Another provision that tort reform proponents said has been vital is limiting the place where lawsuits are filed to where the alleged injury or harm occurred. Easterling said the 2004 tort reform bill has stopped venue shopping for favorable courts and judges.

“The 2004 bill also made mass tort claims much more difficult to facilitate,” Easterling said. “The important thing is that the 2004 tort reform bill was a victory for healthcare in Mississippi and for all Mississippians. It was not just a victory for doctors. It was a victory for our patients.”

Saving progress

Angela Cain, CEO of the Mississippi Association of Realtors (MAR), said candidates Smith, Lamar, Chandler and Pierce would help retain the progress made in tort reform.

“The MAR PAC, our political action committee, makes those endorsements,” Cain said. “They are very committed to a fair legal environment and the election of qualified and balanced judges. We believe that is conducive to a thriving business environment.”

MAR is encouraging Realtors to get out and vote.

“We encourage others who are concerned about a pro business environment to do the same,” Cain said.

Ron Aldridge, National Federation of Independent Business/Mississippi (NFIB/MS) state director, said the nine individuals who serve on the state Supreme Court can influence the future of business and Mississippi’s business climate greater than many other elected state officials.

“Their judicial opinions can affect the ultimate success or failure of the meaningful civil justice reform enacted in 2004, whether we have a court composed of those who believe only in interpreting the law and not making their own law, and will also critically impact how well our state brings criminals to justice,” Aldridge said. “The importance of this election is about protecting the historic tort reform, which NFIB helped pass in 2004, that changed Mississippi’s reputation from a ‘judicial hellhole’ to a well-advertised state ‘open for business’ and which has resulted in a fair and balanced court system.”

What’s at stake?

Aldridge said what’s at stake is an attempt by the same group of trial lawyers that were defeated at the state Capitol to overtake the Mississippi Supreme Court by electing or re-electing their trial bar friends and rule that Mississippi tort reform laws are unconstitutional.

“That’s what they’ve done in several other states, and if we let them, they will turn back the clock in Mississippi,” he said. “Our economic uncertainty right now is bad enough, but lest we not remember previously how every small business was one lawsuit away from bankruptcy. Our hope is to continue to elect or re-elect judges with no agenda other than being fair and impartial to all. The majority of our current Supreme Court is fair and balanced as a result of the involvement of the business and medical communities. We must work again to keep it that way.”

Buddy Edens, president, Mississippi Associated Builders and Contractors, said the four candidates endorsed are conservative.

“We don’t want the guys who are extremist or more prone to permit these excessive lawsuits,” Edens said. “We want a fair and balanced judicial system. And we think these candidates would make up a well-balanced court. We have gone a long ways in repairing the state’s reputation for jackpot justice, but we still have a ways to go. We will work on that in the next legislative session.”

Economic implications

Perry Nations, executive director, Associated General Contractors of Mississippi (AGC), said the election is particularly important considering the downturn in the economy.

“I think on the national level, the economy is not looking really good at this particular time,” Nations said. “It is going to be more and more important that we have a Supreme Court down here that gives you a level playing field. No one wants to take something to the Supreme Court. But when there, you want to make sure the court is not slanted one way or another.”

That sentiment was echoed by Marty Milstead, executive vice president, Homebuilders Association of Mississippi.

“Obviously, it is important to anybody who is in business to have a court that has folks who make good and fair decisions, and are not beholden to any group be it trial lawyers or business,” Milstead said. “The previous court had too many decisions that seemed to be tied to the trial bar. It was perceived that the court was not balanced. I think the present court has displayed what Mississippians think we need, which is a fair and balanced court that interprets the law and doesn’t try to make law.”

Jay C. Moon, president and CEO of the Mississippi Manufacturers Association (MMA), also said interest in the Supreme Court races is the desire for a fair and impartial court that will make decisions based on the Mississippi Constitution and the law.

“The candidates being supported by the MMA Political Action Committee are Jim Smith, Ann Lamar, David Chandler and Bubba Pierce,” Moon said. “We believe these candidates for Supreme Court, both incumbents and challengers, will reflect the traits we believe are important for our judicial system.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at 4becky@cox.net.

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