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Supreme Court races heat up for Central and South Mississippi

Current Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice James W. Smith Jr., Brandon, is running in the Central Mississippi (District 1, Place 3) position on a record of helping reduce the backlog of cases before the court.

A supporter of changing to appointments of state judges in light of the recent judicial scandals in the state, he faces two opponents in the November election, Jim Kitchens of Crystal Springs and Ceola James of Vicksburg.

Smith has been on the court since 1993, and became Chief Justice in April 2004.
He considers clearing the backlog of cases before the court a significant milestone.

“The court has been current on its docket since July of 2004, which is the first time the court has been up to date in recent memory,” Smith said. “The court has also been named the second most productive court in the country in a May 2008 study conducted by the Chicago Law School. We have implemented a new pilot e-filing/docket management system and have established commissions for access to justice, criminal rules, domestic violence, security/disaster response and, for the first time in our state’s history, youth court rules.”

Smith said the successful MyCids case management program has been asked for by other states. Other accomplishments he points to include expanding drug courts, strong relationships with the Mississippi Bar Association and trial judges and hiring six extra judges in Hinds County to eliminate the criminal case backlog.

Backed by business groups in the state, Smith said he would continue to be fair and impartial in his rulings.

“I think this is what the business community is looking for in our court system,” Smith said, the longest-serving member of the Supreme Court who has written 800 majority opinions. “I’m proud to have support from every facet of our state, and it is humbling that so many people have entrusted me with their support.”

Smith had previous experience as the prosecuting attorney for the City of Pearl from 1973-1980. He served as Rankin County prosecuting attorney in 1976, and was appointed district attorney for the 20th Circuit Court District of Rankin and Madison counties in 1977. He continued to serve in that position until Gov. William Winter appointed him as Rankin County Court Judge in 1982.

Keep ‘em elected

Jim Kitchens, who has three of his five children practicing law with him, served three terms as a district attorney for a four-county district and has been active in the National District Attorneys Association and the Mississippi Prosecutors Association. Since returning to private practice, Kitchens has served in leadership roles for the American Association for Justice and the Mississippi Association for Justice, including on the boards of governors and executive committees.

Kitchens has appeared in Rolling Stone magazine regarding successfully litigating an heirship paternity proceeding for the only child of blues legend Robert Johnson. The case in 1998 came more than 60 years after the musician’s death. Kitchens will be portrayed in an upcoming HBO movie about the Johnson case.

Kitchens said he is a stout supporter of an elected judiciary that allows the people of Mississippi — not politicians — choose judges.

“The incumbent’s answer to taking money out of politics is to appoint judges,” Kitchens said. “He has publicly stated several times — including this year after the Scruggs mess — that he believes the governor should appoint judges. He’s said repeatedly that he will go to the Legislature and seek such a change.”

Kitchens said appointing judges does not mean money and politics will be taken out of the Supreme Court. It just means that the money and politics will be hidden behind the doors of powerful politicians.

Kitchens said while there are caps on campaign contributions, his opponent is the beneficiary of at least three special interest groups that are skirting these campaign finance laws and running attacks ads for his benefit.

“Does that sound like the leadership of someone who wants to rid our judicial system of money and politics?” Kitchens asks. “We need a judiciary that is predictable, which is to say we need a Supreme Court that rules according to the law and not some political agenda.”

‘Only interested in the facts’

Ceola James of Vicksburg, the third candidate for the Central Mississippi slot, said she doesn’t believe judges should lean either towards lawyers representing big business or plaintiff lawyers.

“We have a lot of fights in Mississippi between businessmen and trial lawyers,” James said. “If I’m elected to the bench, I will be a judge for all of the people. I think that is very much needed, to elect someone who wants to serve all of the people and not get involved in one particular political group. In the 9th District Chancery Court, I was careful not to gossip with the staff because I didn’t want to know if someone was Republican or a Democrat, a trial lawyer or a businessman. I was only interested in the facts of the case.

“I’m a solo practitioner and practice both civil and criminal law. Each time opportunity to serve as judge, I’ve always been known as extremely fair.”

James said she has worked her way up the ranks, and has eight years of judicial experience. A former 9th District Chancery Judge, she was a professional educator before obtaining her law degree, teaching French and English for several years. She has appointed in 1997 as interim Warren County Justice Court Judge, and served a special appointment as Port Gibson City Judge in 2003. The Mississippi Supreme Court appointed her to serve as a special Forrest County Chancery Judge in 2003, and she had a similar appointment as special Rankin County Chancery Judge before then.

James campaign slogan is, “Working hard for Mississippi to promote a more perfect America.”

Down south

In South Mississippi (District Two, Place Two), incumbent Presiding Justice Oliver Diaz Jr., Biloxi, faces off with “Bubba” Pierce, Leakesville, who was a member of the Mississippi House of Representatives prior to being appointed as chancery judge in Greene, George and Jackson counties.

In a highly publicized court battle in 2005, Diaz was found innocent of charges that he accepted a bribe from attorney Paul Minor. Diaz said anyone who looked at the bribery prosecution against him would realize it was politically motivated.

“The prosecutors are being investigated now for the political nature of the prosecutions,” Diaz said. “One investigation is by the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee. The Department of Justice Office of Professional Responsibility is doing an investigation. And a special prosecutor from Oklahoma is also looking into the conduct of Dunn-Lampton. There are three investigations going into prosecutors’ conduct, so I think everyone realizes there was not much to those charges against me.”

Diaz said he is not anti-business.

“I’m the son of a small businessman,” he said. “My father did that to feed and clothe the family. I’ve operated a small business in the past. I wouldn’t do anything to hurt small business. I know what it like to make payroll, pay insurance and deal with liability issues. I understand the problems facing the business community.”

Diaz said everyone wants fairness out of the court; they want a level playing field. But he questions if outside special interest groups representing big insurance and tobacco companies have tried to buy seats on the Supreme Court in the past.

“Anybody who spends money on judicial races should be required to show where that money comes from so that people can decide who is the financial support behind the advertisements,” Diaz said.

Diaz said there is a public perception that the court favors big business, and he is concerned that his opponent served on the Mississippi House committee that developed tort reform legislation designed to limit financial awards in personal injury lawsuits and make it more difficult to sue.

Pierce said his position is that judges should follow the law — not make the law.

“They should not double dip from the judicial branch to the legislative branch,” Pierce said. “Part of oath of the judges is to administer justice, to give equal rights to the poor and the rich. The court should be a place where anyone who has a cause in that court doesn’t feel disadvantaged stepping into that court. Everyone needs a level playing field to settle disputes.”

Pierce said he thinks judiciary focus should be on law itself and on the litigants.

“A judge’s role is to properly interpret the law and follow the law,” Pierce said. “A good judge will follow the law even when it doesn’t agree with his personal beliefs. I believe that the Supreme Court should not make laws, but rather correctly interpret our current laws. As a Supreme Court Justice, I will ensure that our laws protect our families and businesses and that Mississippi is a place where fair and swift justice prevail.”

Pierce said it is unfortunate that the judiciary has tried to step outside of the original intent of the founding fathers of being arbiters.

“A judge should not force his or her will on the people,” he said.

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

About Becky Gillette

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