Elected judiciary fits state mold

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – In less than a month, on the same day Mississippians go to the polls to choose between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, voters also will decide three spots on the nine-member state Supreme Court.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, legislation was debated and studies conducted on the merits of switching to an appointed judiciary.
But in recent years, there has been little debate on the issue.
“I am not looking at that at all,” said Rep. Mark Baker, R-Brandon, who as chair of the House Judiciary A Committee would play a key role in any decision regarding the courts. “That’s not my thing.”
Senate Judiciary B Chair Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said he would favor some type of appointed judiciary.
“I think we need an appointed judiciary because I think the judiciary needs to be free of political influences,” Bryan said, but conceded he does not believe such a proposal would pass the Legislature.
Judicial candidates in Mississippi compete in nonpartisan elections. But it is not uncommon for political parties to endorse candidates. It also is not uncommon for business groups or plaintiff attorneys to throw their support – including financial support – behind candidates in what have become costly elections.
According to the website of the Fund for Model Courts, 33 states have some type of appointed system. Often that includes a defined term, and then the possibility of a retention election for the judge.
Federal judges receive lifetime appointments, ostensibly to remove any partisan or other outside influences from their rulings.
At a recent public debate, Rep. Earle Banks, D-Jackson, who is challenging Chief Justice William Waller Jr. for a Central District slot on the Supreme Court, said he supports an elected judiciary.
“Mississippians like to elect their leadership,” Banks explained.
Indeed, Mississippi is one of the few states to still elect superintendents of education and the leadership of its transportation system.
According to the Parents Campaign, a Mississippi-based advocacy group, of the fewer than 150 elected superintendents in more than 14,500 school districts nationwide, 64 of them are in Mississippi.
In recent years, there have been concerted efforts in the Legislature to make the superintendents of all of the state’s school districts appointments. Currently, a little less than half of the state’s districts have appointed superintendents.
There is no longer such a concerted effort with the judiciary system.
Waller said, “It is always important to have accountability” which is brought through an election. “But I am going to evaluate it (merits of an appointed judiciary) after the election.”
In the ’90s, much of the impetus for studying the issue was coming from some segments of the business community and some sitting judges.
But Baker said he does not see a groundswell for even studying the issue now.
Baker’s counterpart, Senate Judiciary A Chair Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg, said it appears changes in the civil justice system in the early 2000s gave businesses more protection from lawsuits, and “most of the discussion about an appointed judiciary faded away.”
He added, “It is not even on my radar” for consideration.
Baker said most judges run for re-election unopposed.
“I see that as affirmation that the bar that appears before the judges thinks they are doing a good job,” Baker said.
He said that an appointment process – such as where the governor nominates judges and the Senate confirms them – also would be political.
But Bryan said once a judge was appointed, he would have a certain degree of independence and not be viewed as a Republican judge or a Democratic judge or a judge for the plaintiffs’ or defendants’ bar.
He said it is important for a judge to not only be impartial, but to be perceived that way.
Waller did say that in Mississippi – where it is not uncommon for judges to step down in the middle of terms – a significant number of both appellate and trial court judges are appointed by the governor.
For instance, on the 10-member Court of Appeals, six of the judges were initially appointed to their posts by the governor to fill vacancies. After the appointment, the judges ultimately must stand for election.
On the Supreme Court, four of the justices were initially appointed.
George Carlson Jr., who was originally appointed in 2001 by then-Gov. Ronnie Musgrove and stood for election in 2004, is not seeking re-election this year.
Josiah Dennis Coleman of Pontotoc County and Richard “Flip” Phillips of Panola County are vying to replace Carlson in what is expected to be the costliest Supreme Court race of the three on the ballot this year.
Through June, Phillips had raised $144,950 and had cash on hand of $133,688. Coleman had raised $51,027 and had cash on hand of $24,566. New campaign finance reports are supposed to be filed with the Secretary of State’s office this week.
Besides Banks challenging Waller in the Central District, in the Southern District, incumbent Michael Randolph is being challenged by Talmadge Braddock.
Leslie King, who was appointed to the Supreme Court by former Gov. Haley Barbour, is running unopposed for his Central District slot.
Another reason judges should be appointed, Bryan said, is that when they run for re-election, it slows the judicial process. A judge who has an opponent must campaign, taking him away from his duty to hear cases and make rulings. He said campaigns for other offices do not completely shut down government.
For instance, when the governor is running for re-election, the executive branch can continue to function.
bobby.harrison@journalinc.com