- Associated Press - Saturday, October 22, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - A clear partisan split has developed in a race to fill a central district seat on the Mississippi Supreme Court.

Justice Jim Kitchens and his challenger, Court of Appeals Judge Kenny Griffis, are running without party labels, as required by law. However, prominent Democrats are backing Kitchens, while big-name Republicans are supporting Griffis.

Kitchens, 73, of Crystal Springs, is a former district attorney for Copiah, Lincoln, Pike and Walthall counties and worked several years in private practice. In 2008, he unseated Justice Jim Smith of Brandon to join the nine-member Supreme Court.

Griffis, 55, of Ridgeland, has been on the 10-member Court of Appeals since 2002.

The election is Nov. 8.

The central district 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.

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Campaign finance reports show Kitchens has raised nearly $467,000 this year, while Griffis has raised nearly $400,000.

Among the attorneys contributing to Kitchens’ campaign is John Morgan of Orlando, Florida, who gave $5,000. He’s a founder of Morgan & Morgan, a firm with more than 300 attorneys and a frequent rotation of its own television ads with the slogan “for the people.”

Griffis‘ contributions include thousands of dollars from political action committees for auto dealers, bankers, hospitals and poultry processors.

The business-supported Improve Mississippi Political Action Committee has raised more than $253,000 and is spending some of it on ads supporting Griffis.

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Attorneys and Democratic former statewide elected officials are among the donors to Kitchens’ campaign.

Former Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove and former Attorney General Mike Moore gave $1,000 each to Kitchens. They are both attorneys in private practice. Former Secretary of State Dick Molpus gave $1,500. He runs a Mississippi-based timber business with holdings in several states. Musgrove, Moore and Molpus all served as Democrats.

The Mississippi Republican Party has endorsed Griffis, and Gov. Phil Bryant is among those who have spoken on his behalf, and Bryant’s campaign fund has given $1,000 to Griffis.

Republican former Gov. Haley Barbour, who has returned to lobbying since leaving office in 2012, gave $1,000 to the Griffis campaign.

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One of the highest-profile cases Kitchens handled before becoming a judge was as a court-appointed defense attorney for white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith, who was convicted of murder 1994 for the 1963 slaying of Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers in Jackson.

Kitchens said during a press forum this month in Jackson that Circuit Judge Breland Hilburn asked him and Merrida Coxwell to defend Beckwith.

“I was for everything Byron de la Beckwith was against, and against everything he was for,” Kitchens said. But, he said he took the case because he had been taught that a lawyer who’s asked to represent a criminal defendant has an ethical obligation to do so unless there’s a genuine conflict.

“If the most despicable human being that we know can’t get a good defense, can’t get a lawyer who works hard for him or her, who does his or her best for that despicable person, then I can’t expect that one of my children gets falsely accused of a crime, that that child would get a fair shake, either,” Kitchens said.

Speaking of the legal system, he said: “It’s got to work for everybody, or it doesn’t work for anybody.”

Beckwith died in prison in 2001.

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Griffis was in private law practice in Meridian and Ridgeland before being elected to the Court of Appeals 14 years ago. He is one of the longest-serving members of the appeals court and the Supreme Court, combined.

During the press forum Oct. 6, Griffis said he wants to push for accountability, integrity, transparency, consistency and innovation in Mississippi’s court system. He said the Supreme Court should request laws that would require faster and more detailed disclosure about donations to judicial campaigns.

“We’ve got to decide what to do about our state’s reliable and timely functioning of our criminal justice system,” Griffis said. “We need more than words. We need action. Because this is integrity in our criminal justice system.”

He also said the Supreme Court should be an “innovator” by bringing together lawyers, law enforcement agents, prosecutors, defense attorneys, Department of Corrections officials, victims’ advocates and others to discuss how to work within limited resources to improve the court system and to make other changes such as simplifying the filing of police reports and retention of evidence.

“There’s a lot of work, and we need a new generation of judges who will lead this effort to the 21st Century,” Griffis said.

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: https://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .


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