JACKSON — A divided Mississippi Supreme Court late yesterday vacated a lower court’s order that put a Jackson attorney’s name on a Court of Appeals ballot.
Latrice Westbrooks had challenged her removal from the ballot based on residency arguments.
Westbrooks has acknowledged that she lives seven-tenths of a mile outside District 2, but she says state law doesn’t require Court of Appeals candidates to live inside the districts where they run. She said her law office is in a townhouse inside the district, and that she will move there if authorities rule that she must reside inside the district. Her home is on one side of Interstate 55 in Jackson and her law office is on the other side, she said.
The state Board of Election Commissioners removed her name from the ballot Sept. 10, citing her residency as the reason. Hinds County Circuit Judge Winston Kidd ordered her placed on the ballot Sept. 17. The elections board on Sept. 18 appealed Kidd’s decision to the Supreme Court.
In briefs filed with the Supreme Court, Westbrooks said she moved her residence into the district before the order of the circuit court. She said she also has transferred her voter registration into the court district.
“We find that a candidate for the office of Court of Appeals of the State of Mississippi must reside within the district for the office she seeks,” the court ruled. “We further find that Westbrooks has not met the residency requirement. Therefore, the circuit court erred in finding that Westbrooks was a qualified candidate for the position. The circuit court’s order granting permanent injunction and order granting declaratory judgment is hereby vacated. The injunction is hereby dissolved.”
Justice David A. Chandler, in dissent, said he believed the Supreme Court lacked jurisdiction to review the merits of the appeal.
“This Court may reverse and remand for a transfer to the appropriate court if there is error in the proceedings other than jurisdiction,” Chandler wrote. “Accordingly, I would reverse the decision of the Circuit Court of Hinds County, First Judicial District, and remand the case with directions for the circuit court to transfer it to the Hinds County Chancery Court, First Judicial District.”
Chandler did, however, support the majority’s “analysis of the pertinent statutes.”
“I would hold that consistent with past state practice, Westbrooks had until the day of election to be a resident of the district,” Justice James W. Kitchens wrote in his dissenting opinion.
“Because the state now seeks to abandon that practice, without having obtained the required preclearance under the Voting Rights Act, I would hold that attempted abandonment of this practice to be ineffective, and that Westbrooks has until the November election to meet the residency requirement.
“In conclusion, I would reverse the trial court’s judgment regarding whether there is a residency requirement. If the court determines that the trial court reached the right result, the court may affirm the trial court’s holding on other grounds. Thus, I would affirm the trial court’s judgment to place Westbrooks on the ballot. All candidates’ names should be placed on the ballot. If Westbrooks wins the election and there then remains an issue regarding where she resides, any challenge to her residency may be addressed at that time. If she loses, the point is moot.”
As of now, the names of Ermea J. Russell of Flora and Ceola James of Vicksburg will appear on the Nov. 6 ballot in the special election to finish an eight-year term started by Leslie D. King of Greenville. Absentee voting started this past Saturday.
The election winner will serve through January 2017.
Mississippi judicial candidates do not run with party labels.
The 2nd District includes all of Bolivar, Carroll, Claiborne, Coahoma, Holmes, Humphreys, Issaquena, Jefferson, Leflore, Quitman, Sharkey, Sunflower, Quitman, Sharkey, Sunflower, Tunica, Warren, Washington and Yazoo counties and parts of Attala, Grenada, Hinds, Leake, Madison, Montgomery, Panola and Tallahatchie counties.
The court’s majority precluded Westbrooks from filing a motion for rehearing, saying that ballots have been printed, and absentee balloting has begun.
“That is not a rational justification to preclude rehearing on an issue of this significance,” Kitchens’ dissent said. “The majority fails to identify any specific harm that is prevented by not allowing a rehearing in this case. But if this case has been wrongly decided, then there is significant harm to Westbrooks, her supporters and their right to support a candidate of their choice.”