PERRY/Judicial elections 2014
Wednesday, January 8, 2014 12:00 AM
Two seats on the Mississippi Court of Appeals as well as all circuit, chancery and county court judges will be up for election in 2014. No seats on the staggered election calendar of the Mississippi Supreme Court will be up for election this year. Some judicial candidates have already filed for election and the qualifying deadline is May 9. Judicial candidates in Mississippi are non-partisan although political parties may endorse candidates. The election is November 4 with any run-offs taking place on November 25.
The Court of Appeals hears cases assigned by the Supreme Court. Circuit courts hear civil lawsuits and felony crimes as well as appeals from county, municipal and justice courts (and administrative boards and commissions). Chancery courts hear disputes dealing with property and family and constitutional challenges.
The two Court of Appeals seats up for election are currently held by Kenny Griffis (District 3; Position 2) and Virginia Carlton (District 4, Position 1). Both are conservative and both have qualified to run for reelection.
Griffis, a Meridian native, first won his seat in a special election in 2002 by defeating Jim Brantley who was appointed to the bench by Governor Ronnie Musgrove following the resignation of Judge Mary Libby Payne. Griffis won with 56 percent of the vote. He was unopposed for reelection in 2006. His district is the "old Third Congressional District" with all or part of nineteen counties including Lauderdale, Rankin, some of Madison, north up to Clay and south into Jones.
Carlton, formerly a Republican state legislator, won her seat in a 2006 election where she led the field against four opponents with 33.1 percent of the vote and then defeated Ed Patten, Jr. with 53.9 percent of the vote in the run-off. Carlton is a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves and served as a JAG officer for twenty years in the Army and has in recent years served a military judge. Her district is the "old Fourth Congressional District" including all or part of fifteen counties including Hinds and south to the Louisiana line, from Adams and Wilkinson east into Jones.
The power of incumbency remains strong with chancery and circuit court judges. Unless - through retirement, resignation or death - a seat opens up, lawyers tend to not wish to challenge sitting judges in whose court they may practice. In 2010, 43 of the 49 chancery judges were unopposed with one incumbent winning even after passing away before the election. There were four open and contested seats. Only two incumbent chancellors faced a challenge: one won; one lost.
On the circuit court level, 36 of 53 judges were unopposed. Seven open seats were contested. Ten incumbents faced a challenge but only two lost.
So four years ago, 77 percent of chancery and circuit court judges faced no opposition and of the incumbents who faced a challenge only 3 lost.
Currently, 21 counties in Mississippi have a county court system with a total of 30 judges. Mississippi Chief Justice Bill Waller, Jr. and the Commission on Children's Justice are advocating for an expansion of this system with 20 additional county judges to cover districts which make up the remaining 61 counties. The last effort to create a statewide county court system was not approved by the legislature in the 1990s.
Campaign contributions to judicial candidates are limited to $2,500 per person ($5,000 for Court of Appeals and Supreme Court) and corporate contributions are forbidden. The first periodic campaign finance report for candidates is May 9. Candidates for chancery, circuit and county judge must be at least 26 years old, a practicing attorney for at least five years, a citizen of Mississippi for five years preceding the election and a qualified elector for and from the district the candidate seeks to serve. The same is true for the Court of Appeals except the candidate must be at least 30 years old.
There are other elections in Mississippi in 2014 as well. U.S. Senator Thad Cochran and all four of Mississippi's U.S. House of Representatives will seek reelection this year; some school board members and levee commissioners also have elections in 2014. The qualifying deadline for Senate and House is March 1, with the primary election on June 3 and the general election on November 4. School board members begin qualifying on August 6 and the deadline is September 5 with the election on the regular November 4 date. Levee commissioners (Bolivar, Humphreys, Sharkey, Washington counties) have a June 3 election with any run-offs on June 24.
While the U.S. Senate campaign will rightfully receive much of the political attention this year, in many ways the work of local judges impacts communities more than a statewide office. Voters should be involved in participating in judicial elections in their counties and districts.
Brian Perry is a columnist for the Madison County Journal and a partner with Capstone Public Affairs, LLC. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @CapstonePerry on Twitter.