But an undercurrent of alleged viewpoints – pro-plaintiffs versus pro-business – colors the actual ground campaigns, which must run without party affiliations.
Flip Phillips, 65, of Batesville and Josiah Dennis Coleman, 39, of Toccopola face off on the Nov. 6 ballot to succeed Justice George Carlson of Batesville, who retires at year’s end.
Phillips is the only one with any judicial experience, but it’s been years since he was his hometown’s municipal judge.
Matt Steffey, a Mississippi College School of Law professor and frequent political commentator, says this election is important because its outcome likely will affect the judicial philosophy for the majority of justices on the state’s highest appeals court at least for the next eight years, which is one term for a justice.
“This race is the first time recently to have a ‘fresh face’ on the court,” said Steffey, “meaning someone who hasn’t come from a long judicial career.”
On campaign issues:
• Phillips touts his 40-plus years before judges on behalf of private individuals and corporations, some as plaintiffs and others as defendants.
• Coleman is 13 years out of law school and never has been lead attorney on any case before a court.
• Phillips is branded a “trial lawyer” by political action committees supporting Coleman.
• Coleman gets criticized by the opposition for a narrow career of writing briefs for insurance companies and medical malpractice defendants.
Both are family men and intellectuals with plenty of book-learning, although Phillips’ career spans a much wider array of legal issues.
“It’s a bit unusual to have a judicial candidate who’s never had a lead role in a full trial,” observed Steffey, who votes from the state’s central district. “There’s a big difference and a broader perspective that goes on for someone in a courtroom than someone who’s one step removed.”
However, he also said Coleman’s appellate writing experience may yet be closer to what judges really do, although a seat on the Mississippi Supreme Court is “a big jump from appellate lawyer and second chair.”
“Frankly, 13 years out of law school, I might not have known everything I thought I knew,” Steffey added.
But, Coleman’s energy and enthusiasm could go a long way, and his youth could bring a long-term viewpoint to the court if he can win across several terms.
On the campaign trail, Coleman makes sure to tout a 2002 Lee County malpractice case, which he terms a “pivotal moment” in his legal career.
He was part of a Tupelo law firm, which represented a doctor whose patient died. The man’s widow sued and a Lee County jury awarded her $5 million in damages.
The Mississippi Supreme Court initially upheld the verdict, then reversed and sent it back in response to a Coleman-written, slamming-hot motion accusing the state’s highest court’s majority of bias and completely missing the law in the case.
But in granting the motion, the court chastised the Tupelo firm for its verbal effrontery, saying that “while zealous advocacy is appropriate,” disrespect or contempt for the court by any party dissatisfied with an appellate decision “is absolutely sanctionable and will not be tolerated in the future.”
Ultimately, the case was settled and never went back to court.
Ben Cooper, a legal practice and ethics assistant professor at the University of Mississippi School of Law, said he’s not read the motion or the warning but speculates it sounds only like strong advocacy.
Coleman insists he and the case’s other attorneys intended no disrespect to the court.
“However, given the ‘jackpot justice’ judicial climate of the time,” he said, “when our court was stocked with justices with agendas other than fairly applying the law, I appropriately presented an aggressive and passionate argument on behalf of my client.”
Since then, the court’s composition has shifted to a more conservative viewpoint.
If Phillips wins, Steffey gauges that he too will add a “fresh face” to the court’s lineup, albeit for just the one term as Phillips notes.
If Coleman wins, says the MC law professor, he could solidify the court’s current majority conservative bloc of pro-prosecution and pro-business leanings.
“But frankly, you never really know what a judge will do until he or she becomes a judge,” Steffey said. “Sometimes they surprise you, but most times they don’t.”
While Coleman doesn’t speak ill of his opponent publicly, it hasn’t stopped at least one supporting PAC from buying TV ads calling Phillips a “trial lawyer” portrayed as a shark swimming in murky waters.
Ron Rychlak, an Ole Miss law professor, says recent waves of legal reforms have been fueled with claims that lawyers who file lawsuits against doctors or pharmaceutical companies or big corporations are anti-business and in it for the money.
“’Trial lawyer’ definitely has become a disparaging term,” Rychlak agrees, although many attorneys who file these lawsuits believe it’s the best way to protect innocent people from unscrupulous practices.
Phillips, who has filed lawsuits against large corporations, is quick to point out that he’s equally represented such businesses as Dunlap-Gateway Tires, now an international company.
“I’ve handled – and been successful in – all types of litigation throughout my career, including some of the largest and most reputable companies in Mississippi,” he says.
Both men agree it is a judge’s job to correctly and fairly apply the law to whatever case might be before them.