Clarion Ledger - "Supreme Court Races"

News Article

By:  Jim Kitchens
Date: May 10, 2008
Location: Jackson, MS


Clarion Ledger - "Supreme Court Races"

State Supreme Court Presiding Justice Oliver Diaz Jr. has weathered several storms in recent years - Hurricane Katrina and worse.

But they have not deterred him from taking on another re-election bid for the court, where he has served since 2000.

Diaz is one of nine candidates running for three spots on the high court. In the District 2 race, he faces two challengers: Paul Newton Jr., 53, a Gulfport lawyer and expert in trust and tax law; and Chancery Judge Bubba Pierce of Leakesville, 43, a former state lawmaker.

Justice Chuck Easley, 59, who was elected to the high court in 2000, has the distinction of running as a candidate in two different Supreme Court races in District 3.

In Place 1, Easley and Okolona lawyer Gene Barton are the challengers against Justice Ann Lamar of Senatobia, a former prosecutor whom Gov. Haley Barbour appointed to the court a year ago. In Place 2, Easley faces Appeals Court Judge David Chandler of Ackerman, who joined that court in 2001.

Chief Justice Jim Smith Jr., 64, of Brandon, who joined the high court in 1993, said he decided to run again because his colleagues asked him to stay and finish the projects he's begun.

He faces former Chancery Judge Ceola James and Crystal Springs lawyer Jim Kitchens.

All three incumbent judges running for the state Court of Appeals are unopposed: Leslie King, Larry Roberts and David Ishee.

The greatest challenge that justices face is restoring confidence in the courts, Diaz, 48, said. "Whether they've been abused by criminals or corporations, they look toward the justice system for justice. That's why it's named that."

Diaz lamented the cost of running for justice, expected to top more than $1 million for a position that pays no more than $115,390 a year.

In 2000, Diaz became a target of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which spent millions in Mississippi to defeat him and other candidates.

Despite the spending, Diaz won. "I certainly think there's a problem with outside money from big corporate interests trying to buy an election," he said.

Starting in 2003, he faced down a challenge to his integrity when he was prosecuted on corruption and tax charges. In each case, the jury cleared Diaz of any wrongdoing.

He feels his prosecution was politically motivated. "The vast majority of people feel I was wrongly accused and prosecuted, and the jury agreed," he said. "People have gone out of their way to encourage me to run."

Amid all of that turmoil, he and his family had their Pass Christian house severely damaged by Katrina, and his parents' house was destroyed. "It lets you know what's important in your life - your friends and your family," he said.

That experience, he said, has taught him how to better empathize with others.

One of his challengers, Newton, said he is in the race for the high court because "I feel I can bring integrity and honesty to the court - not that there isn't integrity and honesty on the court now. I feel I would be a good candidate and a good judge."

He said the job of the judiciary is to "enforce the law properly, not to rewrite the law."

Pierce said he believes the key issue facing the high court is to keep the docket moving so people can have their day in court.

"We need to make sure justice moves as swiftly as possible," he said. "We just need to make sure when the public goes in the courtroom, they have a fair justice system."

He decided to go into law after reading To Kill a Mockingbird. "Atticus Finch embodies what a lawyer should be," said Pierce, who has memorialized the novel in items he keeps in his office.

Justice Easley said that he's running for two seats on the same court in order to make a statement "about special interest groups wanting appointed judges. Mississippi should always have the right to vote for their judges."

In one race, he lists his address as Caledonia; in another, it's a post office box in Columbus.

The Mississippi Legislature recently passed legislation aimed at preventing candidates from running in two different races at the same time, but the law doesn't go into effect until July 1. Easley said that law doesn't apply in his case because he filed to run before that date.

He believes the qualifications for those serving on the state Supreme Court or the state Court of Appeals need to be raised. "We have some people deciding whether someone lives or dies, and they've never tried a case in front of a jury," he said.

He called the current court "too liberal. It bends over backwards for criminals."

Barton, Lamar and Chandler did not return calls seeking comment.

Chief Justice Smith said one of his biggest accomplishments has been getting rid of the court's backlog. The court has remained current since July 2004.

He currently is overseeing a computerized statewide docket management system that would permit lawyers to file their cases electronically. It would be similar to the so-called PACER system used in the federal court system.

In fact, he said, Mississippi is using a modified version of that federal software and system - the first in the nation to do so.

Within weeks, the first cases are expected to be filed electronically in Madison County Chancery Court, he said, before the system is tested in several other counties.

He's been referred to as an "activist" judge, but Smith said he prefers the term "aggressive. We're trying to set the right examples."

He supports an appointed system for appellate judges with retention elections every six years with a two-term limit. He also supports increased pay for Mississippi judges. "We are missing the best qualified attorneys because we can't get them to leave their lucrative law practices," he said.

He spoke of restoring integrity to the entire judicial system in the wake of recent guilty pleas in a judicial bribery scheme. "We will overcome this, and we'll come out of this stronger," Smith said.

Kitchens, 65, a former prosecutor, said the greatest challenge to the courts is judicial campaign finance reform. "The system we have right now is dysfunctional," he said. "The solution to whatever problems we have is not to take people's right to vote away."

Judicial ethics demand judges guard themselves from conflicts, but under state law a judicial candidate must certify reports that detail each contribution to the campaign, he said.

That means judges know when they decide cases whether someone has contributed to their campaigns or to their opponents', he said. "We need a means of financing so the anonymity of givers is protected and the judges don't know."

James, Smith's other opponent, did not return calls seeking comment.