Judicial Candidates Speak At Neshoba County Fair

Two state Supreme Court candidates who face each other in the southern third of the state gave back-to-back speeches Wednesday.

Incumbent Justice Chuck McRae of Pascagoula said he's the only candidate in the three-man race to have heard a criminal case. Lawyer Jess Dickinson of Gulfport does not have judicial experience, and Chancery Judge Larry Buffington of Collins hears divorces, land disputes and similar cases.

"Some people say I'm too independent,'' said McRae, who has fought drunken-driving charges of his own and has made headlines by running with the bulls in Spain. "Well, folks, I'm proud of that independence. I'm proud that I've never buckled under to rich corporate interests.''

Dickinson won applause by saying Mississippi's legal system is in crisis because of civil lawsuits.

"We have doctors moving out of this state,'' Dickinson said. "And we have lawyers moving in this state like ticks on a hound dog's ear, they come in here to suck blood out of Mississippi.''

McRae, who's viewed by many as an ally of trial lawyers, said he is not taking a position on civil justice changes, or tort reform, because nobody can clearly define what tort reform means.

Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck told a Neshoba County Fair crowd Wednesday that Mississippi needs to invest in early childhood programs to improve its future. She will ask legislators to set aside $1 million to conduct a study on how to improve pre-kindergarten educational offerings so more children will be ready to learn when they start school.

"I believe this issue should rise above partisan politics and turf battles,'' said Tuck, a Democrat.

She said she also wants the College Board to stop raising in-state tuition until it concentrates on raising payments for out-of-state students. Mississippi parents and students have gotten socked with 44.7 percent increases over the past five years, she said.

Tuck said it's cheaper for students from neighboring states to attend Mississippi public universities than it is for Mississippi students to go to school in those states, and she wants that inequity to disappear. The College Board, which does not need legislators' approval to change tuition rates, has turned to tuition increases to offset a shrinking share of state tax dollars.

Tuck is not the first office holder to propose beefing up early childhood programs. Doing so was a plank in then-Gov. Ray Mabus' education package that was never fully funded in the late 1980s.

Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, another Democrat, said he is working with the private Barksdale Institute on a pilot project to improve several programs for 3- to 5-year-olds around the state by this fall.

"We want to look at the data so that the data speaks for the evidence of expanding (programs) statewide, and I believe that it will,'' Musgrove said after listening to Tuck's speech with about 400 other onlookers.

Wenesday marked the first day of political speeches at the annual fair in the red clay hills of Neshoba County. The fair, an eight-day extended reunion for many families and friends in east central Mississippi, attracts legions of political followers to hear the plans of current and aspiring office holders.

Musgrove and Attorney General Mike Moore are among the speakers scheduled for Thursday. U.S. Reps. Chip Pickering and Ronnie Shows also are set to debate.

Shows, a Democrat, and Pickering, a Republican, are facing off in a new central Mississippi district because slow population growth is costing the state one of its five congressional seats.