JACKSON Judicial races are meant to be nonpartisan. After all, the judicial branch is a separate arm of the state government from the Legislature and the governor's office. In most cases, however, and particularly in Mississippi with a Republican supermajority in the Legislature and a fundamentalist-right governor who made several necessary appointments to the state's high court in the past year, partisan political lines are easily detected, even in judicial races.
This upcoming election, four Mississippi Supreme Court seats are up for re-election. Only one contested race features a true incumbent: the District 1, Position 3 race between Justice Jim Kitchens and Judge Kenny Griffis. Justice Dawn Beam has to win an election against former McComb municipal judge Michael Shareef. Justice Jimmy Maxwell, whom Bryant appointed in January, is running unopposed. The District 3, Position 1 seat is a four-person race with no incumbents.
Judicial races are supposed to remain nonpartisan; Mississippi law requires the elections to be listed as "nonpartisan" on the ballot, but so far, the Kitchens-Griffis race appears to be nonpartisan in name only.
Back in August, the Mississippi Republican Party officially endorsed both Judge Griffis and Dawn Beam. Bryant released a statement backing the endorsements: "These races are extremely important. We have a strong slate of judicial candidates this year who represent conservative values that will resonate with voters in all corners of our state. Their experience and dedication will serve Mississippi well. I am confident that each of these candidates will promote a fair and effective justice system in Mississippi." Bryant attended a fundraiser for Griffis back in April.
Let the Money Flow
Candidates only have to report their campaign finances five times before Election Day, and four times by press time. (The next round of reports will be posted on Nov. 1, after this issue went to press).
As of press time, both candidates are nearing the $1-million mark in collected funds if their campaign finances are combined, but where that money is coming from is drastically different, depending on the candidate. The majority of donations to either candidate are from individuals, but who those individuals are sheds light on the source of those funds.
Justice Jim Kitchens' committee has raised $466,000 by press time, and an analysis reveals that 87 percent of his donors are lawyers and law firms primarily in Mississippi. About 19 percent of Kitchens' donations through his October campaign finance report are from out-of-state donors, and notable state Democrats have donated to his campaign. House Minority Leader Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, and former Secretary of State Dick Molpus, a Democrat, have donated to his committee.
Judge Kenny Griffis' committee has raised around $399,000 by press time, and his largest campaign donors are mainly Mississippi businessmen and PACs.
The Court of Appeals judge has harnessed the support of the state's most influential and powerful PACs, like the Mississippi Physicians PAC, the Mississippi Bankers Association PAC and the Mississippi Association of Realtors PAC.
Campaigns of notable state leaders donated to Griffis, including Gov. Bryant, House Speaker Philip Gunn and House Speaker Pro Tempore Greg Snowden. Corporation and PAC donations make up 23 percent of Griffis' campaign finances through his October report.
PACs Got Money
In judicial races, campaign contributions are capped at $5,000, but a group of state PACs and corporations have donated to a separate PAC, Improve Mississippi, for the purpose of supporting Griffis.
So far, the Improve Mississippi PAC has raised more than $250,000 to help Griffis win, and it has used at least some of that money on attack ads.
The ads reference a 2008 Mississippi Supreme Court case, Jordan v. State, in which both the state's high court and the Appeals Court's upheld the conviction of three men for sexual battery and abuse of a 4-year-old. Then-Justice David Chandler objected to the court's ruling and wrote a separate statement that Justice Kitchens joined. Chandler argued that the courts misapplied federal law in the case.
"Because the videotaped forensic interview of A.B. (the 4-year-old) constituted testimonial hearsay, A.B. did not testify, and the defendants did not have a prior opportunity to cross-examine A.B., the admission of the videotaped forensic interview violated the defendants' right of confrontation guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment. And considering all the evidence, the Confrontation-Clause violation was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. ... This case should be reversed and remanded for a new trial," Chandler's written statement said.
The Kitchens campaign said in a statement that the ads have "dirtied up the race." The Griffis campaign released a statement saying they are not responsible for the TV commercials in question.
"The ad appears to examine Justice Kitchens' record, not his character. If the ad is true, Justice Kitchens must decide how he wants to respond to the criticism of his record. If the ad is false, he should address those concerns to the organization running them," Liz Carroll, a spokeswoman with the Committee to Elect Kenny Griffis, said in a statement.
The Kitchens campaign responded to the ads by running television commercials telling voters to ignore the negative ads, saying their claims are not true. Carroll said judicial campaigns cannot coordinate with independent campaign groups.
"The Committee to Elect Kenny Griffis has not and will not coordinate with or even communicate with anyone engaged in an independent expenditure. We have not reviewed, approved, requested or had an influence on these ads," Carroll said.
Most of the Improve Mississippi PAC donors include local Mississippi business PACs, with a few notable exceptions. The Improve Mississippi Political Initiative Committee, which helped defeat the Initiative 42 (a 2015 ballot initiative that would have added legal consequences to not fully-funding the state's education formula), donated $5,777 to the PAC with its same name in July.
Derek Easley, the treasurer of the Improve Mississippi PAC and president of BIPEC, emailed a statement about his PAC's involvement in the Kitchens-Griffis race:
"In order for Mississippi to be a place where businesses locate and jobs are created, it must first be a safe place to work and live. The voters need to know the truth about Jim Kitchens' record of consistently supporting criminals over victims," the statement said.
Improve Mississippi PAC has paid to run TV ads from Oct. 17 through Nov. 13, FEC filings from WAPT show. Outside political groups are also getting involved with the Kitchens-Griffis race, with ads against Kitchens. The Center for Individual Freedom, which claims to be a nonpartisan nonprofit organization based outside of D.C., has paid for TV ads, FEC records show, targeting Kitchens for using "legal loopholes," calling on him to "stand up for victims" citing the same Jordan v. State case. The ad, which is public on their website does not mention Griffis or the election, but the center paid for a flight of ads that ran from Oct. 24-30.
After this issue went to press, The Clarion-Ledger reported that Justice Kitchens inadvertently postponed the trial of a man charged with sexual battery while campaigning in front of jurists in Rankin County, after addressing how he has been "tough on child abusers." The defense asked the judge to dismiss the jurors.
State law allows judicial candidates to campaign in courtrooms. The Kitchens campaign responded with a statement yesterday.
“This morning (11-1-16) I was doing that very thing (campaigning) in the circuit courtroom in Brandon, not knowing that a case in which child abuse was charged might be tried by some of the prospective jurors who were present," Kitchens said in a statement. "During my remarks, I referred to my experience in prosecuting all kinds of crimes as a district attorney, including criminal child abuse. After I had left, an attorney asked the judge to dismiss those jurors because of my reference to child abuse cases."
The statement goes on to say that Kitchens' understanding was that the case could not have been tried on Nov. 1 due to discovery issues.
“In the process it is possible that I may have contributed to a slight delay in the trial of a case. If so, I regret that, and I apologize to all concerned," the statement continued. “I have offered to pay, out of my own pocket, any and all costs incurred by Rankin County.”
Read the full JFP interviews with both Justice Kitchens and Judge Griffis. This story will be updated when November campaign finance filings are published. For more election coverage visit jfp.ms/2016elections.