By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
LAUREL – Special Judge Hollis McGehee will rule today on whether to dismiss Chris McDaniel’s legal challenge of his June 24 runoff loss to Thad Cochran on the grounds that it was filed too late.
McGehee will announce his ruling at 2 p.m. from the bench at the Harrison County Courthouse in Gulfport, where he is hearing another case.
After an hour-long hearing Thursday at the Jones County Courthouse about whether McDaniel’s challenge was timely filed, the judge said attorneys for both sides presented such strong arguments that it presented a “conundrum” for him in making a ruling.
McGehee said he needed time to decide the issue, but late in the day a press release said his ruling would come today.
Attorneys for Cochran argued that a 1959 ruling by the state Supreme Court gives a losing candidate only 20 days from the date of the election to file the challenge. McDaniel took 41 days, so they argued the case should be dismissed.
But attorneys for McDaniel argued that election law has changed since the 1959 Supreme Court ruling. Attorney Steve Thornton told McGehee that in 2003 current House Speaker Philip Gunn of Clinton took 34 days to file his challenge after initial returns showed him losing an election for a four-county state House seat.
McGehee, who was appointed by the Supreme Court to hear the challenge, said he felt like he was at a tennis match. “One (attorney) hit a good shot and the other returned it,” he said.
After the arguments, McGehee said he would believe the 1959 Supreme Court ruling establishing the 20-day deadline to file was still the precedent except for the fact that the Gunn challenge took 34 days.
Attorney Phil Abernethy told the court that it must have been an oversight that the attorneys in the Gunn case did not raise the issue of timeliness.
“The most compelling language” in the 1959 Supreme Court ruling is “that primary elections must be completed speedily.”
He said it is not practicable to think the Legislature did not intend to have a deadline on how long a losing candidate had to challenge the results.
But Thornton said, “There is a timeline of reasonableness and promptness” as determined by the court.
Abernethy said the practical solution for McGehee would be to grant the Cochran motion to dismiss and then McDaniel could appeal that decision to the Supreme Court instead of conducting a multi-day trial that could be thrown out if the Supreme Court still agrees there is a 20-day deadline.
McDaniel was defeated in the June 24 runoff by 7,667 votes out of the 392,197 cast statewide.
McDaniel claims that his campaign has found about 15,000 questionable ballots statewide. Cochran said any irregularities that occurred in the primary runoff were minor and did not impact the outcome.
McGehee also did not rule on whether election documents from at least 42 counties should be delivered to the Jones County Courthouse for the trial as requested by McDaniel. Some county circuit clerks have objected to that request.
McGehee said he was not going to rule on that issue without hearing from the circuit clerks.
The trial, barring McGehee granting the order to dismiss, is scheduled to begin Sept. 16 and the judge has said it must be concluded by Oct. 6.
The state Election Commission already has approved the ballot for the Nov. 4 general election with Cochran facing Democrat Travis Childers of Booneville.
McGehee, a retired chancery judge who lives in Lucedale and still hears cases in special circumstances, has said he has found no other instances of a challenge of a statewide election.