How much does it cost to run a campaign for chancery or circuit judge in Mississippi? For most incumbent judges the cost of reelection is merely the $100 qualifying fee. Of the 53 circuit judges, 37 are unopposed incumbents; and of the 49 chancery judges, 40 are unopposed incumbents.
For those with challengers and in open seats, it can get a bit more costly. But a review of the July 10 periodic campaign finance reports show the campaigns are raising fairly modest amounts of contributions. In the 24 competitive races, the candidates have raised a combined $645,396 by the end of June. Still, many of the campaigns are just now getting started and we'll have a better idea after the October 10 reports are due. These nonpartisan candidates are on the November 4 ballot.
Nearly 30 percent of the total raised statewide has been contributed to one candidate. Gulfport Municipal Judge Robert Fant Walker reported raising $190,276 for the now open circuit seat in Harrison, Hancock and Stone counties. Incumbent Judge John C. Gargiulo had filed for reelection but many expected him to withdraw from the race, which he did when he was chosen as a U.S. magistrate judge for Mississippi's Southern District. Gargiulo will now serve with Walker's father, Judge Robert H. Walker, himself a former circuit judge turned federal magistrate (and nephew of former Mississippi Chief Justice Harry Walker). Walker's opponents, former assistant district attorney Chris Schmidt and Gulfport Councilman Myles Sharp, reported raising $55,450 and $3,000 respectively. (Mississippi Chief Justice Bill Waller, Jr. appointed a retired county judge as special judge to manage the cases in Gargiulo's vacant seat until November 30.)
Only three other candidates - all three incumbents - across the state have raised more than $50,000 as of their July reports.
In Chancery District 16 (George, Greene, Jackson counties) Judge D. Neil Harris, Sr. raised $56,980. His challenger, Jackson County Board of Supervisors Attorney Paula S. Yancey, raised $30,250. Last year, the Mississippi Supreme Court ordered a public reprimand and $2500 fine against Harris for violating the due process rights of three people he charged with contempt. Yancey formerly served as county administrator.
In Chancery District 18 (Benton, Calhoun, Lafayette, Marshall, Tippah counties), Judge Robert Q. Whitwell raised $52,430; his challenger Helen Kennedy Robinson raised $1,000. Whitwell was appointed to the post by Governor Phil Bryant; Robinson lost a challenge to Chancery Judge Edwin Roberts in 2010 with 31 percent of the vote.
And in Circuit District 7, a subsection of Hinds County, Judge Jeff Weill, Sr. raised $54,007 against his challenger, Jackson Municipal Judge Ali M. ShamsidDeen who reported $7,925. In the race for this seat four years ago, ShamsidDeen came in second taking 25 percent of the vote; Weill won the three man race with 61 percent.
Challengers outraised incumbents in only 7 of the 24 races.
One of those races features Don Kilgore, Attorney General of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, against 35-year incumbent Circuit Court Judge Marcus Gordon in District 8 (Neshoba, Newton, Leake, Scott counties). Gordon reported raising $10,800 while Kilgore reported $27,800.
When Kilgore took the stage at the Neshoba County Fair last month, he pulled no punches. He said he was running to unseat Gordon, accused Gordon of failing to show respect to lawyers and victims in his courtroom, and suggested that Gordon believes the judgeship belongs to him. Gordon sat on the stage - red-faced and steely-eyed - as Kilgore criticized his judicial temperament and questioned whether Gordon's behavior contradicted the Canons of the Code of Judicial Conduct.
If Gordon's eyes could start fires, the Pavilion would have gone up in flames. When Gordon took the podium, he said never in three campaigns for judge had an opponent made such disrespectful accusations. Gordon said he is running on his record as judge and district attorney and was surprised when Kilgore qualified ten minutes before the deadline without a courtesy call. He said Kilgore had never raised these issues to him before personally, and hasn't been in circuit court since 1985 so would have little knowledge of his court demeanor.
Gordon has purchased ads in the Neshoba Democrat, Newton County Appeal, Scott County Times and the Carthaginian. As of the July report, Kilgore - a Philadelphia native - had only run ads in the Neshoba Democrat, but maintained more than $25,000 of his contributions as cash-on-hand.
The Gordon-Kilgore race shows that while many judicial campaigns are low-key, low cost ventures; others still retain the fervor of a Pier 6 brawl.
Over all incumbents posted $226,113 to $153,349 raised by challengers. Contributions to chancery and circuit court candidates are limited to $2,500 a person. (All three Court of Appeals judges up for reelection are unchallenged.)
As we close out the summer, expect judicial fundraising and campaigning to pick up steam.
Brian Perry is a partner with Capstone Public Affairs, LLC. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @CapstonePerry on Twitter.