- Associated Press - Sunday, October 2, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Mississippi’s judicial elections are nonpartisan in name only.

State law requires candidates to run without party labels, and the state Code of Judicial Conduct prohibits judicial candidates from making specific promises about how they would decide cases. However, but nothing stops political parties and politicians from exercising their First Amendment rights by choosing favorites.

Republican Gov. Phil Bryant has been out campaigning for judicial candidates this year, including two he appointed to the bench - Supreme Court Justice Dawn Beam of Sumrall and Court of Appeals Judge Jack Wilson of Madison.

The state Republican Party central committee announced in August that is it endorsing Beam and Kenny Griffis of Ridgeland in separate Supreme Court races and Wilson for Court of Appeals.

The state Democratic Party is not endorsing judicial candidates, chairman Bobby Moak said Friday. However, he said the man whom Griffis is trying to unseat, Justice Jim Kitchens of Crystal Springs, is likely to draw strong support from the party faithful.

“I think Jim Kitchens will get a lot of Democratic vote, but that won’t be the only vote he gets. Kitchens sells across party lines so well,” Moak told The Associated Press. “He’s a mellow thinker, so he’s kind of known as a guy who weighs things out.”

Mississippi is divided into three Supreme Court districts - northern, central and southern.

Kitchens and Griffis are running in the central district, which encompasses 22 counties: Bolivar, Claiborne, Copiah, Hinds, Holmes, Humphreys, Issaquena, Jefferson, Kemper, Lauderdale, Leake, Madison, Neshoba, Newton, Noxubee, Rankin, Scott, Sharkey, Sunflower, Warren, Washington and Yazoo.

Griffis has drawn support from a long list of prominent Republicans, including former Gov. Haley Barbour, who helped host a $200-per-couple fundraising reception for him Aug. 30 in Jackson.

When the state GOP endorsed Beam, Griffis and Wilson, Bryant said in a news release: “We have a strong slate of judicial candidates this year who represent conservative values that will resonate with voters in all corners of our state. … I am confident that each of these candidates will promote a fair and effective justice system in Mississippi.”

Beam is challenged by Michael T. Shareef of McComb in the southern district. Its 27 counties are Adams, Amite, Clarke, Covington, Forrest, Franklin, George, Greene, Hancock, Harrison, Jackson, Jasper, Jefferson Davis, Jones, Lamar, Lawrence, Lincoln, Marion, Pearl River, Perry, Pike, Simpson, Smith, Stone, Walthall, Wayne and Wilkinson.

Neither major political party has endorsed anyone for an open Supreme Court seat in the northern district, where four candidates will be on the Nov. 8 ballot: attorney John Brady of Columbus, Circuit Judge Bobby Chamberlin of Hernando, attorney Steve Crampton of Tupelo, and Circuit Judge James T. “Jim” Kitchens Jr. of Columbus - no relation to Justice Jim Kitchens in the central district. If a runoff is needed, it will be Nov. 29.

The state has five districts for the Court of Appeals . In the District 3 race in the central and eastern part of the state, Wilson is challenged by Ed Hannon of Madison, who is a Madison County judge; and attorney Dow Yoder of Ridgeland.

The only other contested race for Court of Appeals is in District 2, which stretches through the Delta into the central part of the state. Incumbent Judge Ceola James of Vicksburg is challenged by attorney Latrice Westbrooks of Jackson. Again, there are no party endorsements in this one.

Incumbents are alone on the ballot in two appellate judge races: Justice Jimmy Maxwell of Oxford in the northern Supreme Court district, and Judge David Ishee of Gulfport in the southernmost Court of Appeals district.

____

Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .

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