Richard L. Hasen and Dahlia Lithwick, writers for slate.com, noted as they covered judges races nationally that big money is coming into judicial races, primarily because of two factors: U.S. Supreme Court decisions loosening rules on campaign contributions and the growth of contributions from business, plantiffs’ lawyers and labor interests, whose bottom lines are routinely affected by state court decisions.
Judges races “are looking more and more like other elections,” Hasen and Lithwick write.
“They are more expensive, more professional, and much, much scarier.”
While North Mississippi’s judicial campaigns may not have reached the “scarier” level with public advertising, the finances were sizable.
In the Court of Appeals race, where incumbent Donna Barnes bested Kelly Mims, their Tupelo-based campaigns raised more than $163,000.
That contest was dwarfed by the nearly $235,000 raised by the three candidates seeking to succeed Circuit Judge Henry L. Lackey in District 3’s Benton, Calhoun, Chickasaw, Lafayette, Marshall, Tippah and Union counties.
“It is not a very pleasant task trying to raise money,” said the winner, Okolona attorney John A. Gregory, who notes that judicial candidates aren’t supposed to personally seek contributions but do so through a campaign committee.
Tom Levidiotis of Oxford, who also ran for the post, said most of his campaign funds came from his own pocket – $104,698.
“I did not raise money from anybody likely to appear before me” if he had been elected, he said late last week. “We made a budget of what we were prepared to lose. It was my plan that win or lose to not accept funds after the election.”
He said he’d like to see a spending limit put on judicial campaigns.
Mississippi elects all its judges, most who run without party labels.
Two decades ago, financial reports show, many of the state’s judicial candidates took in little or no campaign contributions.
Today, many hire professional consultants to handle the details and organization.
Barnes of Tupelo said she wasn’t personally involved with her campaign’s fundraising, but added that her part of that equation was to work across every part of the 23-county district.
“I embraced that challenge,” she said, “and spent as much time campaigning as I could while also focusing on making sure I kept my commitment to do my job” as a sitting judge on the court.
Ben Cooper, an ethics professor at the University of Mississippi’s School of Law, says that electing judges is problematic.
Parties in court and the public “need to have 100 percent confidence that judges are deciding cases based on their interpretation of the law” and not on “who gave them money in their campaign.”
Cooper prefers an appointed judiciary, like the federal system, although he admits that even appointments have their own problems.
But across north Mississippi, many candidates and the winners say they like knowing the will of the people.
“I believe state court judges should be answerable to the citizens of their district through non-partisan elections,” wrote Circuit Judge Robert W. Elliott of Ripley, who was re-elected last week.
Gregory, who’ll take office in January, sees it the same but says it in another way.
“I have heard it said that any selection of an office holder other than by the voters at large is simply an election by a lesser group of individuals.”
Contact Patsy R. Brumfield at (662) 678-1596 or email@example.com.