/Politics intrudes on Supreme Court race

Politics intrudes on Supreme Court race

In central Mississippi, a race for the state Supreme Court is on the line. It’s a close million-dollar race that was markedly influenced by partisan politics. The Court of Appeals Judge Kenny Griffis is challenging Justice Jim Kitchens, the incumbent, to the state’s highest court. Mississippi’s Supreme Court races are nonpartisan according to law. Candidates on the campaign trail cannot disclose their party affiliation. Mississippi is one of only 13 states that have nonpartisan high court races, thanks to the 1994 sweeping judiciary reform. Mississippi Today heard from both candidates that the so-called nonpartisan nature has caused them difficulties, but they said that they have complied with the law and not disclosed their affiliations while campaigning. Kitchens stated that people want to know with whom you are affiliated. They will look at you with an untrusting eye and say they don’t believe you if you tell them one. People have told me they don’t vote for Republicans, or that they don’t vote for Democrats. I think they simply won’t vote. (Partisanship has a place within these campaigns that’sn’t intended, but it is there.” Griffis described similar problems he encountered while campaigning. Griffis stated that elections are all about politics. It is difficult to explain it to everyday voters, but that’s one of my biggest problems. Nine out of ten times, I am asked the first question, “Are you a Democrat, Republican?” Now, how do I answer that question if I don’t know? They say that we run nonpartisan and I try to talk about the race. A look at campaign finance reports, endorsements and staff payments by campaigns shows how partisan politics have shaped the campaign. This campaign is similar to others since reform. This race is the most expensive in Mississippi this cycle, with close to $1 million spent. Kitchens was financially supported by many prominent Democratic figures in state government, including former governors William Winter (and Ronnie Musgrove), former attorney general Mike Moore, and Dick Molpus (ex-secretary of state). Griffis was supported by top Republicans like former governor Haley Barbour and Joe Nosef (state GOP chairman), and Mike Chaney, Insurance Commissioner. Gov. Phil Bryant’s campaign political-action committee gave Griffis a $1,000 check in September. The Mississippi Republican Party supported Griffis and Republican statewide officials like Bryant, Lt. Governor. Griffis has been supported by Tate Reeves and Philip Gunn, House Speaker, and Secretary-of-State Delbert Hosemann. In the past calendar year, Kitchens PAC paid Pam Johnson nearly $35,000. Johnson has worked with many Democratic state officials and managed the 1995 campaign for Eric Clark, Democratic secretary of State. Jared Turner, Kitchens campaign manager, received $47,000 from this campaign. Turner has also worked on several Democratic campaigns, including the run for governor by Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny Dupree in 2011. Van White, a staffer for Griffis’ campaign committee, has been paid close to $40,000. White, who was previously president of the Business and Industry Political Education Committee (BIPEC), resigned earlier this year and joined Griffis’ campaign. According to the BIPEC website a PAC called Improve Mississippi Political Action Committee is associated with Griffis. This PAC has at least one ad attacking Kitchens. The IMPAC ad which questions Kitchens’ judicial record has been aired on six stations every night for the past three weeks. A similar ad was paid for by the Virginia-based Center for Individual Freedom. It claims that Kitchens used legal loopholes to reverse the convictions of three men who had sexually abused a child. Kitchens called the ads “disgusting” as well as untrue and publicly called on Griffis not to condemn them. Griffis claimed this week that neither he nor any member of his campaign committee staff knew about the attack ads. He also said “it’s my opposition’s responsibility to condemn the ads.” Only 12 other states, Arkansas, Georgia, and Kentucky in Southeast, elected state Supreme Court justices via a nonpartisan election. Both candidates for Mississippi’s central districts have opposing views on the future of the races. Kitchens called 1994’s judicial reform “one the best decisions the Legislature has made in my lifetime,” citing his support for nonpartisan labels. Kitchens stated, “If the system’s followed, it is good.” Kitchens was asked if he would support partisan judges races. Griffis presented the exact opposite view and said that voters need to be transparent when making decisions. Griffis stated, “I have no problem supporting partisan judicial races.” The voters have the right to all information. I believe that if you want to elect judges, you should give the voters as much information as possible. Transparency is what I stand for. “I don’t know any other way to answer that question if I’m for transparent.” * Justice Jim Kitchens is a Crystal Springs native and resident. He received a Bachelor of Science degree in 1964 from the University of Southern Mississippi and a Juris doctorate in 1967 from the University of Mississippi School of Law. In 1971, 1975, and 1979, he was elected district attorney in the Mississippi counties Copiah (Lincoln), Pike (Pike) and Walthall. After nine years, he returned to private practice. He didn’t seek public office again until 2008 when he was elected to an 8-year term at the Mississippi Supreme Court (Central District), Place 3 beginning in January 2009. Since 1968, Kitchens has been married Mary Tooke Kitchens. She is a retired teacher in public schools. The couple have five adult children, Suzannah Kitchens Finch (Matthew W. Kitchens), Daniel W. Kitchens and Rebecca Kitchens Thornton (John W. Kitchens). Justice and Mrs. Kitchens are the parents of 12 grandchildren. * Judge Kenny Griffis (55), is a Meridian native and Ridgeland resident. Since 2002, he is the Mississippi Court of Appeals’ Presiding Judge. He received his accounting and law degrees at the University of Mississippi. From 1984 to 2007, he was a Certified Public Accountant. Griffis is currently a member the Mississippi Supreme Court’s advisory Committee on Civil Rules and the Chair of The Mississippi Bar’s Bench Bar Committee. He was also a member of the Committee on Continuing Judicial Education, the Committee on Electronic Filings and Case Management Systems, and the Committee on Continuing Judicial Education. Griffis was an adjunct professor at Mississippi College School of Law and Belhaven University. He also taught at the University of Mississippi School of Law and Meridian Community College. Five boys are born to Griffis and Mary Helen, his wife. They reside in Ridgeland, and they attend Christ United Methodist Church. Griffis was a youth Sunday school teacher, Cub Scout leader and coach for over 80 youth sports teams including soccer, hockey, and basketball.