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Northern district races spark controversy over business influence

The only woman currently serving on the Mississippi Supreme Court, Ann Hannaford Lamar, Senatobia, is facing opponent Gene Barton, Okolona, in the North Mississippi race (District Three, Place One) for Mississippi Supreme Court.

Barton has expressed concerns about the large amount of campaign contributions Lamar is receiving, especially from the state’s medical community. But Lamar said her intention is to interpret the law as fairly and impartially as she can.

“I would say same thing to the business community as everyone I’m talking to, and that is I try to approach every case on an individual basis,” Lamar said. “I am committed a system where everyone is entitled to a fair trial and a fair hearing, a place where they can have their disputes resolved. The court should be free from agenda, and looking to get it right in each case. I sincerely try to not to let politics enter into those decisions.”

Look at the record

And while gender diversity on the court helps achieve balance, Lamar said she would put her record up against anyone.

“What I would like to be is the best judge I can be, not the best female judge I can be, because these are important issues we are dealing with here,” Lamar said.

Lamar said that the law says candidates for the Supreme Court cannot solicit or accept campaign funds, but can put a committee in place to do that.

“The financial part of it is difficult for us and I try to stay as removed from it personally as I can, and let folks I’m working with deal with the contributions,” said Lamar, only the third woman to serve on the Mississippi Supreme Court. “All I can do is play by the rules they give us. We have had a lot of support from all different areas and I’m proud of that.

“It is just so critically important that we maintain the public confidence in this court and the judicial system. Sometimes when politics get in the way of that, it is difficult and I think it does hurt sometimes. Judges are held to a higher standard, and they should be. In a campaign year, each candidate is responsible for his or her own actions and comments. People have to judge candidates for what they are.”

Lamar was appointed to the Supreme Court in May 2007 by Gov. Haley Barbour to fill the vacancy created by the retirement of Presiding Justice Kay B. Cobb. Lamar previously served five-and-a-half years as a circuit judge from the 17th Circuit Court, which is made up of DeSoto, Panola, Tallahatchie, Tate and Yalobusha counties. She has also presided over 17th Circuit Drug Court, and is a former district attorney in the 17th District.

Unfairly portrayed?

Gene Barton, an attorney in private practice in Okolona, said he has been unfairly portrayed as anti-business in advertising in the race.

“The medical association said it would save them money if they got her elected, and encouraged every doctor in Mississippi to give her $1,000,” Barton said. “I am not running for plaintiffs or for business. I know no business wants to be sued. I’m not against business or necessarily for people who want to sue a business. The bottom line is everyone who comes before the court should be treated fairly.”

Barton said when claims are made that if certain candidates are elected, businesses don’ t have to worry about lawsuits and insurance rates will decrease, that could make it look as if one is trying to stifle legitimate lawsuits.

“Then the Supreme Court is into community development, trying to bring in business,” Barton said. “That isn’t the purpose of the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is a forum for people to resolve disputes. The court isn’t supposed to look at the impact on the business community, but render just and fair decisions. Should our Supreme Court be good for business or good for fairness and integrity? The court should be fair to everyone, including businesses. If business is right, you should rule for business. But if there is a legitimate complaint against a business and the jury has decided that, you should let that decision stand.”

Barton said he is being unfairly portrayed as a vicious trail lawyer when in fact he has handled only one malpractice lawsuit, and in that case represented the doctor. His father and grandfather were bank presidents.

“So I know about business,” Barton said.

Barton said he is not a trial lawyer’s candidate, and if so his campaign records would show large contributions from trial lawyers. But he said he does believe most trial lawyers are hard working attorneys who attempt to get justice for their clients.

“The majority of those suits are legitimate cases filed when someone has been wronged and needs recourse,” Barton said.

Barton, a former city alderman in Tupelo, is presently both the city attorney and city prosecutor for Okolona. He has been a public defender for 10 years and a lawyer for 30.

Outspoken incumbent

Easily the most outspoken and controversial candidate in the race is incumbent Justice Charles Easley, a resident of Lowndes County, who has criticized the present court for being too liberal and biased towards big business. Easley said the court is “bought and paid for,” and that is a common perception of most people in the state.

Easley initially filed to run in both Northern district races, but says that he never intended to follow through running against Ann Lamar. He was merely protesting her appointment to the court by Gov. Haley Barbour to fill the unexpired term of Justice Kay Cobb. Easley said special interest groups would prefer for judges to be appointed.

“I was trying to make a point that the appellate should be elected, not appointed,” Easley said. “I never had any intention of running against Justice Lamar. I was just making a point. The people should decide who is on the court. It was just a gesture to show how important it is to vote for your judge.”

Easley said his opponent David Chandler is not qualified to sit on the Supreme Court.

“I have gone in front of a jury and tried about 300 to 350 cases,” Easley said. “Nobody else on the Supreme Court has ever done that. No one in present court has ever came near that. My opponent hasn’t ever tried but five or six jury trials. He doesn’t have the qualifications I have. I am a graduate of the National District Attorneys College. The man has basically no experience before becoming a court of appeals judge. He is a phony. He has done unethical things.”

Easley said that special interest groups want to buy the Supreme Court, but he is not for sale.

Prior to winning a seat on the Supreme Court eight years ago, Easley served as an assistant district attorney for the Third Judicial Court District from 1980- 1983, and is a former prosecutor and former judge of the Town of Caledonia. He practiced law in Columbus from 1983-2000.

‘Consistent, firm, fair and just’

Opponent David Chandler of Tupelo said he believe courts should be fair and impartial and free from the influence of special interest groups. The courts should strictly interpret the law rather than write law.

“I believe a judge should be consistent, firm, fair and just,” said Chandler, who experience includes eight years on the Court of Appeals and prior to that 20 years experience in education with the public schools and the Mississippi State University faculty in the workforce training area. “Now that I’ve been on the Court of Appeals for eight years, members of plaintiffs bar or people being sued in civil litigation will tell you I’m considered fair, impartial and competent. Another factor the legal community considers very carefully is demeanor. A judge is supposed to be patient, understanding and courteous. People look for that in a Supreme Court justice, and I believe I have established myself as that kind of person.”

Easley has criticized Chandler as being in the pocket of special interest groups, but Chandler said that he has attracted campaign contributions from a large segment of the population including corporations, the medical community, small business owners, attorneys and regular everyday citizens.

“Every conceivable population group has contributed to my campaign,” Chandler said.

Chandler said if elected he will rule just as he has for the eight-year period on the Court of Appeals.

“I will always make a concerted effort to interpret the law and apply that law to the facts of every case,” he said. “I will never rewrite the law. In addition, I will always behave myself and conduct myself as a way to avoid embarrassing myself or the judiciary.”

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

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