How much is justice worth?

By Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON - Most people would have trouble naming the nine members of the Mississippi Supreme Court, and most definitely would not know the 10 judges on the state Court of Appeals.

Yet, this past year, 11 candidates raised $3.7 million to win one of five spots that were open on the state's two appellate courts, according to year-end reports on file at the Secretary of State's office. And that $3.7 million does not include at least $1 million in unreported, and many contend illegal, contributions made the by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to candidates who were viewed as business friendly by the organization.

No one would argue that justice is cheap in Mississippi. In fact, it is becoming more expensive as two sides - trial attorneys and business interests - battle to obtain more input on the court. In a nutshell, trial attorneys want judges who are friendly to people who file civil lawsuits. On the other hand, businesses want judges who are not friendly to people who try to collect damages against corporations and individuals who are accused of wrongdoing.

Of course, both groups claim they only want balanced, fair-minded judges, especially serving on the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court.

The Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court, which are the state's highest courts, are crucial in this battle of trial attorneys vs. business because those two courts hear appeals of civil lawsuits tried on the circuit court level.

"It is probably an issue most people don't see as critical until they get involved in the judicial system as a business or individual who has a tort claim pursued against them,'' said Dave Dennis of Gulfport, the outgoing chairman of BIPEC, the Business and Industry Political Education Committee. BIPEC supports various business-oriented candidates in the election process.

Many express fear that because groups like BIPEC and the Trial Lawyers are pouring such huge sums of money into the judicial races, courts are being created that are more political and more beholden to special interests.

Legislature doesn't address issue

Despite those concerns, the 2001 session of the Legislature is ending with no effort being made to reform the method that judicial races are funded.

House Apportionment and Elections Committee Chairman Tommy Reynolds, D-Water Valley, said there is little the Legislature can do to address judicial campaign finance reform until the issue created this past year by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is resolved.

"I am willing to do anything we can do to address the issue'' of judicial campaign reform, Reynolds said. "What we have done in the past is under review right now. But I certainly want to look at any positive change we can make. If I said I wasn't worried about our current regulations not being followed, I would be telling you a story.''

The state currently is in federal court arguing that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce broke Mississippi law this past year when it spent a little less than $1 million on television ads supporting judicial candidates who were considered pro business and attacking some who were thought to be on the side of the trial attorneys.

David Blount, a spokesman for Secretary of State Eric Clark, said he knows that the Chamber spent more than $900,000 on television advertising because he called stations throughout the state to ascertain the figure. Jackson attorney Lance Stevens, president of the Mississippi Trial Lawyers Association, said the public has no way of knowing how much the Chamber spent on other activities, such as mail-outs. He said it most likely was well over $1 million.

Mississippi has strict guidelines requiring candidates to report all expenditures and contributions of more than $200. But the Chamber said its effort did not fall under those reporting guidelines because it was conducting "issue-oriented'' advertising that was protected by the U.S. Constitution free speech provision.

The Chamber contended that federal courts have ruled that as long as the ads do not use such phases as "vote for'' a particular candidate that they are "constitutionally protected free speech.''

Last year during court hearings, Washington, D.C.-based attorney Bobby Birchfield, who was representing the Chamber, said, "political speech is at the core of free speech. Many say it is the very reason for the First Amendment.''

The chamber lost its case in the Southern District Court of Mississippi when U.S. Judge Henry T. Wingate ordered the Chamber to file a list of contributors and expenditures on behalf of various candidates for spots on the state Supreme Court. But the case currently is on appeal to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Disclosure key, some say

Secretary of State Clark said he opposed the Chamber's efforts because, "I believe in reporting and I believe in disclosure. I think anybody regardless of political ideology needs to follow state law and should be required to report expenditures of more than $200.''

Clark went on the say he did not understand why any group would be afraid to report.

The state, through the Secretary of State's office and the Attorney General's office, did not try to limit the amount the Chamber spent on its effort. State law limits contributions to judicial candidates to $5,000 from a political action committee or individual and $1,000 from a corporation.

Blount said the Chamber did not fall under those limits because it did not contribute directly to the candidate, thought the organization's efforts had the same effect. He said the Chamber's effort was a perfect example of the soft money issue that is being debated in Congress.

Should there be efforts to limit how much political parties and others spend in support of a candidate or at least in support of a candidate's view? And would those efforts violate the First Amendment? Those questions currently are being debated in Congress.

"I don't think the founding fathers thought that free speech meant an unlimited ability to spend,'' Reynolds said. "I think they meant by free speech an unfettered ability to state ideas.''

And Reynolds said he is worried what the current system is doing to the judiciary in Mississippi.

He said the judiciary should not be beholden to any special interest group.

"Right now I am well satisfied with our courts,'' he said. "I think they came through (the last election cycle) unscathed. I think they have judicial objectivity.

"But if they would be buffeted by competition from the left and right or from whomever on a continuing basis, that makes me worried about their successors.''

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