By EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS
JACKSON — Mississippi has nonpartisan judicial elections in name, if not in practice.
Candidates for Supreme Court, Court of Appeals and other judicial posts run without party labels — Democrat, Republican or other. But that doesn’t stop political parties or other interest groups from getting involved in the campaigns by spending money, making endorsements, Tweeting or sending people door-to-door to chat and distribute campaign material.
The Mississippi Republican Party recently released a list of its preferred judicial candidates. Trial lawyers have held fundraisers for those they want to see on the bench, and business groups are also contributing to candidates of their choice.
At the Neshoba County Fair in early August, Republican Gov. Phil Bryant urged people to support the re-election of Bill Waller Jr., chief justice of the nine-member state Supreme Court.
“Judge Waller, thank you for your service,” Bryant said to cheers from the casually dressed crowd.
Waller, the son of the late Democratic Gov. Bill Waller, stood and waved.
The younger Waller is challenged this November by Democratic state Rep. Earle Banks. Both men live in Jackson.
Since the 1970s, the state’s canons of judicial ethics have barred judicial candidates from saying how they’d rule on particular issues. Instead, candidates are only supposed to only talk about their own qualifications for office. Those limits make for bland campaign speeches.
During his own speech at the Neshoba County Fair, Waller focused mostly on how drug courts help people turn their lives around — nothing to scoff at, but still in the realm of feel-good campaigning. Banks tried to connect with the crowd by talking about hunting and fishing, and touched on his legislative record, saying he had supported all levels of education.
For a few years, Mississippi limited political parties’ role in nonpartisan judicial races.
In 1998, then-Gov. Kirk Fordice vetoed a bill that would’ve prohibited parties from giving money to judicial candidates. The outspoken Republican said such a ban was a violation of free speech.
The veto came after lawmakers had left the Capitol in 1998, and they overrode it when the 1999 session began. Both chambers were controlled by Democrats at the time. The House vote was 102-19, while the Senate vote was 35-14.
Then-Rep. Ed Perry, D-Oxford, who was chairman of the Judiciary A Committee, told the House that it made sense to ban parties from giving money. He said if judicial candidates run without party labels, “Why should that party endorse you or give you money?”
Republican Rep. Mark Formby of Picayune, who is still in the House, argued on behalf of Fordice’s position during the override debate, saying it helps voters to know where the parties stand.
“I want to know what is the general philosophy of that candidate,” Formby said.
On Oct. 10, 2002, the Mississippi Republican Party filed a federal lawsuit challenging the ban. Less than two weeks later, U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate struck it down as unconstitutional.
The state attorney general’s office acknowledged similar laws had been overturned by courts. Special Assistant Attorney General Hunt Cole said Mississippi had “no legal basis for disagreement” with the Republicans’ lawsuit.
Jim Herring, a former judge who was state GOP chairman at the time, applauded Wingate’s ruling.
“When they took the political parties out of the process of electing judges, it created a vacuum and into the vacuum came the special interest groups and the single-issue organizations, like the trial lawyers and the Chamber of Commerce,” Herring said. “They’re the ones that are now funding and supporting judicial candidates, and that’s not a good thing.”