State's Supreme Court races cost nearly $1M

BY PATSY R. BRUMFIELD
Daily Journal

Gene Barton didn't expect to be nearly in debt at the end of an unsuccessful campaign for Mississippi Supreme Court.

“I spent over $120,000 of my own money running … lost $40,000-plus in law practice … just now recovering,” Barton confirmed in an e-mail Monday.

The Okolona attorney and three other candidates in north Mississippi's two Supreme Court races spent more than $930,000 in their 2008 political pursuits, say campaign finance reports from the Secretary of State's Office.

Friday was the deadline for the reports to be filed.

Spending reports show former Court of Appeals Judge David “Tony” Chandler of Ackerman was the top money-raiser at $373,335. He defeated incumbent Chuck Easley of Caledonia, who raised $77,638.

The other race, won handily by Ann Hannaford Lamar of Senatobia, saw her raise $295,878 compared to opponent Okolona attorney Gene Barton with $183,458.

Barton is the only candidate with debt. Judicial candidates do not run by party labels.

The annual salary is $112,530 for a Supreme Court judge, although the two presiding justices and the chief justice make a few thousand dollars more.

It's expensive to mount a Supreme Court case, says Tupelo political consultant Morgan Baldwyn, because these races have changed from “courthouse races,” where decisions were made by traditional political structures, now to more grassroots, voter-based races.

It's the media costs for those grassroots campaigns that have driven up the costs, he noted, but perhaps it's brought more democracy to them.

“I think historically, media budgets are running at least 50-60 percent of campaign costs these days,” said Baldwyn, who's run campaigns for judicial candidates over the past several campaign cycles.

This trend appears to have begun after Easley's surprise win in 2000 over then-Chief Justice Lenore Prather of Columbus.

In that race, Prather only slightly outraised Easley – $142,021 compared to $141,438 – although in the few weeks after his election, Easley gained another $190,000 in contributions.

“People running after that just didn't want to be caught flat-footed,” observed one source, who asked not to be identified as someone close to campaigns.

That's apparently why in 2004 appointed Justice George Carlson of Batesville raised nearly $384,000 to gain a full term on the court against Columbus attorney William Bambach, who raised just shy of $25,000.

Campaign money can boost name recognition, noted former Justice Kay Cobb of Oxford, who used her own name recognition in 2000 to defeat Hernando attorney Percy Lynchard, who had raised nearly twice as much as she had.

“My opponent wasn't generally well known,” she recalled. She said her years in the state Senate and involvement with the Mississippi University for Women Alumnae Association paid off, along with other relationships.

Cobb was appointed to the court in 1999, then ran for a full eight-year term. She retired in 2006, making way for Gov. Haley Barbour's appointment of Lamar.

Contact Patsy R. Brumfield at (662) 678-1596 or patsy.brumfield@djournal.com.