A near million dollar state Supreme Court race, decidedly marked by the influence of partisan politics, is coming down to the wire in central Mississippi.
Incumbent Justice Jim Kitchens, who was first elected to the state’s high court in 2008, is facing a fierce challenge from Court of Appeals Judge Kenny Griffis.
Supreme Court races in Mississippi are nonpartisan by legal definition, as candidates stumping on the campaign trail are not permitted to disclose their party affiliation. The sweeping judiciary reform passed in 1994 made Mississippi one of just 13 states in the country in which high court races are nonpartisan.
Both candidates told Mississippi Today the so-called nonpartisan nature of the election has presented difficulties at times, though both said they have followed the law and not publicly disclosed their affiliation while campaigning.
“People want to know who you’re affiliated with,” Kitchens said. “When you tell them neither one, they look at you with a jaundiced eye and don’t believe you. I’ve had people say they don’t vote for Republicans or they don’t vote for Democrats, so I guess they just won’t vote. (Partisanship) has a place in these campaigns that’s not intended, but it’s there.”
Griffis detailed similar problems he’s encountered while campaigning.
“Elections are about politics,” Griffis said. “One of the biggest problems I do have is explaining it to your everyday voter. Nine times out of ten, the first question I’m asked is, ‘Are you a Democrat or Republican?’ Now how am I supposed to answer that if I can’t say? I say to them that we run nonpartisan, and I try my best to talk about the race and who I am.”
A look at campaign finance reports, endorsements of the candidates and staffers paid by the campaigns show how partisan politics have shaped this campaign, like others since the reform.
Close to $1 million has been spent on this race, making it the most expensive Mississippi race, by far, this cycle.
Kitchens has been financially supported by many well-known Democratic figures within state government: former governors William Winter and Ronnie Musgrove, former attorney general Mike Moore and former secretary of state Dick Molpus.
Griffis received contributions from top Republicans such as former governor Haley Barbour, state GOP chairman Joe Nosef, and Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney. Gov. Phil Bryant’s campaign political action committee cut Griffis’ PAC a $1,000 check in September.
The Mississippi Republican Party endorsed Griffis, and Republican statewide officials such as Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, House Speaker Philip Gunn, and Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann have expressed support for Griffis.
This calendar year, Kitchens’ PAC has paid communications director Pam Johnson almost $35,000. Johnson has worked for numerous Democratic state officials, and she managed the campaign for Democratic secretary of state Eric Clark in 1995.
Kitchens campaign manager Jared Turner, who has received $47,000 from the campaign this year, has worked on numerous Democratic campaigns the past few years, including Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny Dupree’s run for governor in 2011.
Griffis’ campaign committee has paid staffer Van White close to $40,000. White stepped down from his position as president of Business and Industry Political Education Committee (BIPEC) earlier this year and joined the Griffis campaign. BIPEC, which has endorsed Griffis, is affiliated, according to the BIPEC website, with a PAC called Improve Mississippi Political Action Committee (IMPAC), which has run at least one ad attacking Kitchens in recent weeks.
The IMPAC ad, which challenges Kitchens’ judicial record, has aired nightly on six television stations the past three weeks. Another similar ad, paid for by Virginia-based Center for Individual Freedom, claims Kitchens used “legal loopholes” to reverse convictions of three men who sexually abused a child.
Kitchens called the ads “disgusting” and untrue, publicly calling on Griffis to condemn them. Griffis maintained this week that neither he nor anyone on his campaign committee staff commissioned the attack ads “to his knowledge,” and he says “it’s my opponent’s responsibility” to condemn the ads.
Just 12 other states — Arkansas, Georgia and Kentucky in the Southeast — elect state Supreme Court justices through a nonpartisan election. The two candidates in Mississippi’s central district race have opposite views about the nature of the races moving forward.
Kitchens called the 1994 judicial reform “one of the better decisions the Legislature’s made in my lifetime,” citing support for the nonpartisan labels.
“If the system is followed, it’s good,” Kitchens said when asked if he would support partisan judicial races.
Griffis portrayed the exact opposite view, citing a need for “full transparency” when voters are making decisions.
“I have no problem with partisan judicial races,” Griffis said. “Voters are entitled to all the information possible. To me, if you’re going to elect judges, you need to give as much information to the voters as you can. I’m for transparency. I don’t know how I can answer that any other way if I’m for transparency.”
• Justice Jim Kitchens, 73, is a native and resident of Crystal Springs. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Southern Mississippi in 1964, and a Juris Doctorate from the University of Mississippi School of Law in 1967.
He was elected district attorney for the Mississippi counties of Copiah, Lincoln, Pike and Walthall in 1971, 1975 and 1979. He served for nine years before returning to the private practice of law. He did not seek public office again until 2008, when he was elected to an eight-year term on the Mississippi Supreme Court (Central District, Place 3), commencing in January of 2009.
Kitchens has been married to Mary Tooke Kitchens, now a retired public school teacher, since 1968. They are the parents of five adult children: Suzannah Kitchens Finch, Matthew W. Kitchens, Daniel W. Kitchens, Rebecca Kitchens Thornton and John W. Kitchens. Justice and Mrs. Kitchens have 12 grandchildren.
• Judge Kenny Griffis, 55, is a native of Meridian and resident of Ridgeland. He serves as a Presiding Judge on the Mississippi Court of Appeals, where he has served since 2002. He earned accounting and law degrees from the University of Mississippi. He was a Certified Public Accountant from 1984 through 2007.
Griffis currently serves as a member of the Mississippi Supreme Court’s Advisory Committee on the Civil Rules and as Chair of the Bench Bar Committee of The Mississippi Bar. He has also served on the Committee on Continuing Judicial Education and the Committee on Electronic Filing and Case Management Systems. Griffis has served as adjunct professor at the Mississippi College School of Law, Belhaven University, the University of Mississippi School of Law, and Meridian Community College.
Griffis and his wife Mary Helen are the parents of five boys. They live in Ridgeland and attend Christ United Methodist Church. Griffis has served as a youth Sunday School teacher, a Cub Scout leader, and a coach for more than 80 youth sports teams, including baseball, basketball, soccer, and hockey.