More than 200 attend campaign seminar

May 30, 2002

More than 200 judicial candidates, campaign managers, finance chairpersons and consultants gathered in Jackson Thursday for a seminar on campaign conduct rules, ethics and finance law.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Edwin L. Pittman said, "I'm excited that we had more than 200 people there. I'm pleased that we had that excellent participation. I hope that bodes well for the next election, and that the elections are elections on merit and on individual candidates' personal integrity and dedication to the law. This was a good start."

Mississippi Bar President W.C. "Cham" Trotter said, "There may be some slip-ups, but they can't say they didn't know what the rules were."

Attendance at the seminar was required under one of the new provisions in the Code of Judicial Conduct.

Former Supreme Court Justice Fred L. Banks Jr. told the group, "I know that you all want to run good, clean campaigns. One should not offer for judicial office unless one is prepared to lose."

Banks, who returned to private law practice in October 2001, is chair of the newly created Special Committee on Judicial Election Campaign Intervention. The committee was created in the new Code of Judicial Conduct adopted by the Supreme Court on April 4. The five-member committee will investigate allegations of campaign misconduct.

Members of the committee, in addition to Banks, are attorneys Bill Liston of Winona, Mark Sledge of Jackson and Richard T. Phillips of Batesville, and businesswoman Sheila Dees of Pass Christian. Appointees to the committee were named by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the chair of the Commission on Judicial Performance.

Banks said the committee will give advice if asked, and investigate and issue opinions in response to campaign conduct complaints.

"We are going to respond to questions from candidates asking us whether a proposed action complies with the rules, and we are going to respond to complaints from persons who believe that someone has not complied with the rules," Banks said.

If the special committee finds evidence of some campaigning impropriety, it may issue a confidential cease-and-desist request to the candidate. If a cease-and-desist request is disregarded or if unethical or unfair campaign practices continue, the committee may issue a public statement about violations.

"We have no enforcement mechanism," Banks said.

If campaign conduct appears to violate an election law or a canon of the Code of Judicial Conduct, the matter will be turned over to the Commission on Judicial Performance.

Brant Brantley, executive director of the Commission on Judicial Performance, said the special committee was needed to act quickly. It can move faster than the Commission on Judicial Performance.

"The Commission on Judicial Performance has a well-established set of rules and procedures that just take time. It just takes a while," Brantley said. "So when problems come up that need immediate attention, the special committee will be able to deal with that in a very expeditious manner."

The special committee is required to act within 10 days of receipt of a complaint, unless it's within the final days of a campaign. If a complaint arises within 10 days of election day, the special committee must act within 36 hours.

Brantley gave an overview of election rules included in the new Code of Judicial Conduct. Rules for the way judicial candidates must conduct themselves are more stringent than those for other elected officials.

"The concept or the idea is the judiciary is held to a higher standard than other offices," Brantley said. "Judicial officers don't represent a constituency. The judicial office is to be impartial and be above reproach and not represent some agenda," he said.

Attorneys who are unsuccessful in a judicial campaign and who commit campaign conduct violations are subject to discipline before the Mississippi Bar, said Michael B. Martz, general counsel for the bar.

The Code of Judicial Conduct limits what candidates can say. Brantley said the recent revisions to the Code of Judicial Conduct are more restrictive on what candidates can say.

Canon 5 includes a prohibition which says candidates shall not "make pledges or promises of conduct in office other than the faithful and impartial performance of the duties of the office; make statements that commit or appear to commit the candidate with respect to cases, controversies or issues that are likely to come before the court; or knowingly misrepresent the identity, qualifications, present position or other fact concerning the candidate or an opponent."

The Supreme Court in one of its commentaries accompanying the canons said, "Phrases such as 'tough on crime,' 'soft on crime,' 'pro-business,' 'anti-business,' 'pro-life, 'pro-choice,' or in any similar characterizations suggest fixed views on issues which may come before the courts, when applied to the candidate or an opponent, ...may be taken as prohibited."

Brantley reminded candidates of the long-standing rule that judicial candidates cannot personally solicit contributions, but must leave the fund-raising to a campaign committee. "You as a candidate cannot go out and ask people for money," Brantley said.

The new Code of Judicial Conduct also places a limitation on the time during which a campaign committee can accept money. The cutoff is 120 days after the election.

David Roberts, director of the Campaign Finance and Lobbying Division of the Secretary of State's Office, outlined campaign reporting requirements and finance laws. Roberts noted the campaign contribution limits for individuals and political committees are $2,500 for candidates in Chancery, Circuit and County Court races and $5,000 in Supreme Court and Court of Appeals races. The corporate contribution limit is $1,000 for all races.

Roberts noted that the Secretary of State provides campaign finance information, including candidates' campaign fund-raising and spending reports, on its web site, www.sos.state.ms.us.

"Our mission is to provide as much information as we can in a user-friendly format to the citizens of this state," Roberts said.

The seminar was sponsored by the Special Committee on Judicial Election Campaign Intervention, the Secretary of State, the Mississippi Bar and the Commission on Judicial Performance.

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MEDIA CONTACT:   Beverly Pettigrew Kraft
Administrative Office of Courts
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