PERRY/Landrum faces challenge
Wednesday, April 30, 2014 1:00 AM
In November, Mississippians will cast votes for a number of judicial offices, including all the state's circuit court judges. Typically, incumbent judges face little to no opposition when they seek reelection. Four years ago, only ten incumbents faced a challenge and only two of those lost (53 total circuit judges were elected and of those there were seven open seats). But this year, one race in Jones County promises to be a political donnybrook.
Seeking reelection as the 18th Circuit Court District Judge is the 28-year-incumbent Billy Joe Landrum. He faces four opponents, a reputation for being too friendly in his rulings for trial lawyers and a current and ongoing investigation by the Office of the State Auditor.
Landrum has confirmed the Auditor's investigation to the press and claims it involves a community service program he initiated which requires participants (in jail or on probation) to do community service and pay a $50-a-month supervision fee which Landrum uses to buy equipment. Landrum has admitted to keeping the equipment at his personal farm and on one occasion using one of the trucks purchased through the program to travel to Orange Beach, Alabama. Landrum calls the investigation "a political witch hunt" and says he has offered to repay the mileage from the trip.
While mercy is part of justice, seeking leniency is not the reputation that Landrum has campaigned on in the past, including his 2000 campaign for Mississippi Supreme Court in which he failed to make the run-off with opponents Oliver Diaz (the incumbent) and Keith Starrett (now a federal judge). In that campaign, Landrum was largely funded by lawyer campaign contributions (around $100,000). Since then, the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) has criticized Landrum's judicial "shenanigans" and his court where "flimsy silica cases reportedly still find a welcoming home." In 2013, ATRA put Jones County on its "Judicial Hellholes Watch List" based on Landrum's rulings in civil litigation cases.
Polling from earlier this year, before Landrum had opponents, showed the incumbent is well known in his district, but more voters would support a candidate less plaintiff friendly than those who would support Landrum for reelection. The qualifying deadline is May 9, but so far Landrum has drawn four opponents.
Grant Hedgepeth of Ellisville is a plaintiffs' attorney focusing on auto accidents, criminal defense and mesothelioma and asbestos cases. He served one term as District Attorney for Jones County after defeating the then incumbent DA in the 1999 Democratic Primary by fewer than 400 votes; Hedgepeth was unopposed in the general election. He then lost in the 2003 Democratic Primary by nearly 1700 votes to the current DA, Tony Buckley (who became a Republican in 2011). Hedgepeth also served as an assistant attorney general under Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood. Hedgepeth said with the crowded field in the race he believes this is a good opportunity for him to run.
Current Assistant District Attorney for Jones County, J. Ronald Parrish, made headlines with his prosecution of Dr. Malachy DeHenre. DeHenre performed abortions in Alabama and Mississippi but had his license suspended in both states due to health injuries to the mothers including death. Parrish prosecuted DeHenre for shooting and killing his wife and called him a "despicable nasty person" and said no case he handled "gives me as much gratification as this one." Parrish ran for district attorney in 1995 and lost in a three-way race in the Democratic Primary. I expect he will highlight this and other high profile criminal prosecutions in his campaign.
Noel Rogers, former President of the Jones County Bar Association and an attorney with Gholson Burson Entrekin & Orr, wants to expand the youth and drug court system in Jones County and coordinate with law enforcement to develop an "inter-disciplinary criminal justice task force" to "to take on thugs and criminals that destroy our communities," according to his campaign announcement. He specializes in real estate law and jury selection with a background in automobile liability defense. Rogers ran for District 13 Circuit Court Judge in 2010 and placed fourth.
Dal Williamson is another former Jones County Bar Association President in the race, and a past president of the Jones county Cattlemen Association. He is a partner at Williamson & Thompson which handles family law, personal injury cases and real estate services. He is a former law partner with retired U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Charles Pickering, Sr.
The election for circuit court judges is November 4, but with five candidates in the race it is very likely no one will win a majority, pushing the campaign to a run-off between the two top candidates on November 25, two days before Thanksgiving. The Auditor's Office has not said when they will release the investigation results, but has confirmed there is an open investigation of Landrum.
Brian Perry is a columnist for the Madison County Journal and a partner with Capstone Public Affairs, LLC. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @CapstonePerry on Twitter.