Ruling Could Change Tone Of Mississippi Judicial Races

Mississippi voters can expect livelier, issue-driven debate among judicial candidates because of a ruling Thursday by the U.S. Supreme Court, officials say.

"All of the restraints are removed, and I have mixed feelings about it,'' said Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Ed Pittman.

"First, I want clean, good desirable campaigns, and I want men and women who want to be a judge to adopt judicious speech and attitudes,'' Pittman said.

"On the other hand, I've always believed and still believe in open government. Open discussion is good for the public that has to vote.''

The nation's high court, in a 5-4 ruling in a Minnesota case, said restrictions on judicial candidates' speech are unconstitutional. Mississippi is among nine states that limit what judicial candidates can say on the stump.

Since the 1970s, Mississippi's canon of judicial ethics has said potential judges cannot state their positions on issues but can talk only about their own qualifications for office. Some candidates, particularly challengers, have complained that the rules shackled their ability to draw distinctions between themselves and their opponents.

Ron Rychlak, associate dean at the University of Mississippi's School of Law, said he participated several years ago in a judicial candidates' forum at Mississippi State University.

"The constant refrain was that the only thing they could even sort of mention was that they were anti-crime,'' Rychlak said Thursday.

Mississippi this year has one race for the state Supreme Court, four for the Court of Appeals and several for circuit and chancery judgeships. Jess Dickinson of Gulfport, one of three candidates in a Southern District Supreme Court race, said Thursday's ruling will not change his campaign style.

"Not because of the canons of ethics alone but also because of a sense of fairness and right and wrong, I would be very hesitant to make a promise or commitment to someone about what I would do about a case or subject matter unless I knew all of the facts of that case,'' Dickinson said.

Chancery Judge Larry Buffington of Collins, who's also running in the Southern District Supreme Court race, said his only promise to voters will be to uphold state laws.

"I'm going to tell people what I've done and where I've been the last 20 years in legal practice,'' Buffington said.

"In eight years on the bench, my opinions basically speak for themselves.''

Presiding Justice Chuck McRae of Pascagoula, who's being challenged by Buffington and Dickinson, did not immediately return calls.

Rychlak said voters could learn more about candidates with the speech restrictions removed.

"The risk, of course, is we don't want to have our judges commit themselves to positions before they have to be neutral the two sides of litigation,'' Rychlak said.