Partisan Judicial Elections?

January 17th, 2017 by Perry

Mississippi House Speaker Pro-Tem Greg Snowden (R-Meridian) filed a bill this year to return Mississippi judicial election to partisan elections (HB496) as they were prior to 1994.

Jimmie Gates writes about the bill in the Clarion Ledger:

Under House Bill 496, candidates for judicial offices would have to list party affiliation and run in party primaries.

Snowden said he is trying to level the field for judicial candidates because they now run only in the general election in November. He said if there are more than two candidates and no one gets a clear majority of the votes, there will likely be a runoff.

“No one wants to come out and vote during the Thanksgiving week,” Snowden said of the typical date for a judicial runoff election.

Snowden said his legislation also would raise the profile of judicial elections. He said most judicial contests are down-ballot races, often leading to a drop in ballots cast.

“This isn’t about Republican or Democrat,” Snowden said.

According to the Associated Press, the bill was tabled:

The House Judiciary A Committee, on a split voice vote on Tuesday, tabled House Bill 496 .

Democrats question whether the change would provide an advantage to Republicans in judicial elections. State Supreme Court Justice Jim Kitchens, a former Democrat, won re-election in the Central District last year against a Republican-endorsed opponent.

Justice Jim Kitchens won reelection in 2016 in the Central District. Had it been a partisan race, the outcome may have been closer, but the district still leans Democrat. Democrat Hillary Clinton won the Central District in 2016 with 51.3 percent of the vote over Republican Donald Trump. When Kitchens first won in 2008, the Central District also went to Democrat Barack Obama with 52.4 percent over Republican John McCain. That year there was also a special US Senate race which was “nonpartisan” and Ronnie Musgrove carried the Central District in his challenge against Roger Wicker with 51.8 percent. But in the regular US Senate race that year Republican Thad Cochran carried the district over Democrat Erik Fleming with 53.8 percent.

Even under partisan elections, the Central District would still be competitive. Democrats would still have the advantage. I think a more interesting study would be to see how partisan elections would shake out in circuit, chancery and county court races across the state.

Other questions to contemplate:

  • Would candidates in some area run as independent either out of principle or to avoid a primary?
  • Would heavy Democratic districts see a greater increase in African American judges as a result of partisan elections and increase the diversity of our judiciary?
  • Would “Tea Party” politics push Republican judges further to the right in conservative areas?

Judicial candidates should not be forced to run under partisan labels; there should also be the opportunity to run as an independent. But judicial candidates should be free to associate themselves with a political party; and a political party should be free to gather together - whether in a caucus or a primary - and choose a nominee. But, the measure appears to be tabled for this year. Still, Snowden’s proposition deserves additional consideration.


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