MAGNOLIA – A House election challenge, first filed in 2015, was delayed again Tuesday in a case that has already set several precedents for state election law.
After Rep. David Myers, D-McComb, edged out Democratic primary challenger Tasha Dillon by 144 votes in August 2015, Dillon filed suit in Pike County Circuit Court claiming “election improprieties,” including voting machine malfunctions and voter intimidation inside polling places.
Pike County Circuit Judge James Bell dismissed the case in 2015, citing a lack of jurisdiction in the matter. He noted that election challenges are typically handled by the state political parties or the Legislature.
After neither the Pike County Democratic Party nor the House of Representatives took action in the matter, Dillon filed an appeal of the circuit court’s decision to the Mississippi Supreme Court. Earlier this month, the state’s highest court ruled that the circuit court did have jurisdiction to hear the case.
But Myers, a member of the U.S. Army Reserves who has served House District 98 since 1996, was put on active status and deployed in February. Details of his deployment, including where exactly he is and how long he’ll stay overseas, were sealed Tuesday by the court because they may have contained confidential information.
A federal law, the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act of 2003, protects deployed military personnel from civil actions against them while they are serving the country. The law, signed by President George W. Bush, is a continuation of a federal law enacted during World War II.
Myers’ attorney Brandon Jones, a former House member himself, entered a motion this week to delay the hearing, citing the federal act.
But according to the law, Myers’ commanding officer must indicate that Myers cannot take military leave to handle the case back home during his deployment. Having had less than three weeks to gather information for Tuesday’s hearing after the Supreme Court decision, Jones told the judge that he was unable to retrieve that specific documentation.
Because of that wrinkle, the circuit judge again delayed the case, this time for 21 days to allow Jones to gather and present that information.
“I don’t want to deny Ms. Dillon her day in court, which has already been delayed, and I don’t want to deny Mr. Myers’ right to be present and not be penalized by his military service,” Bell said. “I try hard to be a rule follower … So I’ve got these two things to balance, and I’m not seeing a best way except to follow this rule (of the federal law).”
Dillon told Mississippi Today on Tuesday that she believes at least 145 people would have voted for her in August 2015 had they been given a fair opportunity.
As for the delay in the court process, Dillon said: “We cannot rush the legal process. I’m well with it.”
“There were a lot of problems with the process of the election. The process failed,” Dillon said. “You can beat me, but you cannot cheat me.”
The Mississippi Supreme Court’s decision, in an 8-1 ruling, stated that primary election challenges should be handled by the state’s political parties and courts, while general election challenges should be handled by the Legislature.
Justice Michael Randolph, who wrote the opinion for the Supreme Court, acknowledged the precedents the court was setting in the decision.
“We have denied citizens like Dillon, the right to contest a primary election,” Randolph wrote.
In addition to the 21-day delay issued on Tuesday, Bell ruled that Dillon’s attorneys could move forward with collecting information about the alleged improprieties — the first time allegations from the original complaint have seen any movement.
Meanwhile, if Jones is able to obtain communication in 21 days from Myers’ commanding officer that indicates Myers cannot return home for the case, the judge must issue a minimum 90-day stay on the case under the federal law. Depending on how long Myers’ deployment lasts, the court’s stay could be longer than that.
If Myers is able to take military leave during his deployment, Bell said he’d like for Myers to come to court to handle the election challenge.
“It’s not uncommon for service members to have leave during their time of service,” Bell said. “He might rather spend his leave somewhere else, but this is an important matter. If he has leave available, I’d like for him to spend it here resolving this issue.”