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GOP challenges law barring open support of state judicial candidates

By The Associated Press


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JACKSON, Miss. — The Mississippi Republican Party filed a lawsuit in federal court yesterday seeking a voice in the state's judicial elections, GOP chairman Jim Herring said.

Herring, a Canton attorney, said the Legislature went too far in a 1998 law that barred political parties from openly supporting judicial candidates and giving money to their campaigns. The same law established nonpartisan elections for judges.

Then-Gov. Kirk Fordice vetoed the campaign-finance bill in 1998. The Legislature overrode his veto in the first week of the 1999 session.

While lauding the plans for more detailed reports on donations and stricter penalties for candidates who do not file reports, Fordice said the state had no business banning political parties from endorsing or contributing to judicial candidates.

Herring said that is what the GOP is asking of the federal courts.

"We believe if we are going to elect judges then we should be able to endorse, support and contribute to candidates," Herring said.

He said the Legislature's intent was good in moving to limit the politics in judicial campaigns.

"But it shouldn't be just the trial lawyers and the chamber of commerce endorsing candidates," Herring said. "There is a First Amendment issue here."

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Jackson, asks a federal judge to block enforcement of the law so political parties can actively campaign for candidates. The lawsuit also asks that the law be declared unconstitutional.

The move comes as federal authorities investigate whether some state court judges made rulings in exchange for having personal loans paid off by trial lawyers and whether that constituted bribery.

The general election is Nov. 5. The races on the ballot include the state Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals, circuit and chancery judgeships and county posts.

Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, who was lieutenant governor when the law was enacted, said lawmakers wrote the statute so that "one's allegiance to the party wasn't what you expected out of a judge."

"One's allegiance to the law and the proper interpretation of the law was what should guide the observation and analysis of a judge's action and that seems to make sense to me," Musgrove said.


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