Meridian Star - Chief Justice Speaks to Business-people in Meridian
Justice James W. Smith, Jr., the chief justice of the state of Mississippi, was in Meridian Tuesday to speak to graduates of the East Mississippi Business Development Corporation's Leadership Lauderdale program.
The graduation took place at EMBDC's Business Before Hours event at MSU-Meridian's Kahlmus Auditorium.
Appropriately, much of Smith's speech to the Leadership grads centered on the subject of leadership and on attaining success through leadership.
"If you will go where others do not tread," Smith told the graduates, "they will follow."
Smith did not refer to the upcoming Mississippi Supreme Court elections, which will be held Nov. 4, and in which he will face two opponents Crystal Springs attorney Jim Kitchens, and Ceola James, a former judge for the Vicksburg Chancery Court. Rather, Smith stuck more or less to the subjects at hand during his speech to the graduates. He did manage, however, to relate some of his judicial accomplishments to the subject at hand.
"I didn't write 800 majority opinions for nothing," he said, "I had to convince four more judges I was right over the last 15 years," preaching the value of persuasion to graduates while at the same time plugging himself as an experienced and effective adjudicator.
Smith is currently serving his 16th year on the Supreme Court, and his fourth year as chief justice. In Mississippi, the chief justice is the Supreme Court justice with the most seniority.
Before joining the Supreme Court, Smith served as Rankin County judge for 10 years, and has also been a Youth Court judge, a District Attorney, and a prosecutor. Smith has also been a teacher and a middle school principal, and has served in the U.S. Army.
During his address in Meridian, Smith repeatedly spoke of his faith, referring to the Bible and mentioning his own prayer habits.
He said in a later interview that the influence of his faith on his judicial decisions is indirect and "only to keep me on the straight and narrow. It's a guiding force in my life, which I think makes me a better judge."
His faith was also referred to on campaign leaflets that were given out at the event. "Justice Smith's Christian faith and personal principles," it read, "insure that all people are treated fairly in Mississippi's highest court."
Smith spoke of the importance of personal principles in his address, saying "A person needs integrity. They need an appreciation for basic human rights."
Smith wrapped up his speech with another referral to his faith, saying, "God always supplies the right leaders at the right time for the right situation."
In the interview following the graduation, Smith addressed the platform of one of his opponents, Jim Kitchens, who is running on judicial campaign finance reform and on the idea that Supreme Court justices should continue to be elected, rather than appointed by the governor or any other entity.
Kitchens has said that he believes judges should not know, directly or indirectly, who contributes to their campaigns and that, though judges are currently required by law to remain ignorant about their campaign contributors, it should be made more difficult for that law to be broken without detection.
Smith said that there will always be problems with campaign financing, and that a better way to deal with them would be to reduce the maximum amount an individual can give to a campaign to around $250. "The law requires us not to know (the identities of campaign contributors), and we just don't look at them," Smith said. He said all his campaign finance is handled by his lawyers, and that he does not see who his contributors are.
Kitchens has also criticized Smith for believing that judges ought to be appointed rather than elected.
Smith said that he favors appointing judges on the appellate level (Court of Appeals and Supreme Court) only, but that he is "not looking for change at this time" in the method of selecting appellate judges.
"My race this year is about experience versus no experience," he said, not about the issues brought forth by Kitchens. "I have truly led by example," he said, adding that since he became chief justice, the Court has eliminated its backlog of cases, and that it has not missed a deadline since July of 2004. He said that in recent years the Court has made an average of about 400 majority decisions a year, and added that he does not feel those decisions were rushed.
Elections for the Mississippi Supreme Court and Court of Appeals will take place on Nov. 4, along with the presidential and congressional elections on the federal level, and the elections for school board and election commissioner in Lauderdale County.