Historic race shaping up for court seats

Staff Writer

If the current situation holds, Clay, Oktibbeha and four other Northeast Mississippi counties will see a rare election next year — three open seats for three different judgeships.

And with the wide open fields imminent, the list of lawyers lining up to run is long and growing longer. By the time it’s all said and done, voters may find it a little confusing.

As of now, the three 14th District Chancery Court judges — Dorothy Colom, Kenneth Burns and Jim Davidson — all have said they don’t intend to run for re-election next year. That’s almost 50 years on the bench hanging it up at one time.

"I don't remember anything like it in my 30 years practicing. It's a total changeover in a very important court," said Columbus lawyer Donna Smith.

Colom, who has practiced law in Columbus for almost 40 years and was a pioneer in the region not only as a female lawyer but also as a black female, is the senior judge for the district, which spans Chickasaw, Clay, Lowndes, Noxubee, Oktibbeha and Webster counties.

She’s spent 22 years on the bench.

Burns, the Chickasaw County resident who graduated in 1972 from Ole Miss law and went on to be a company commander in the National Guard, school board hearing officer and municipal court judge, was first elected to the bench in 2003.

Davidson, the “youngster” in the group, unseated a sitting judge in 2006, after first practicing law for 35 years and serving as a mediator and arbiter in legal disputes. Interestingly, he originally was a biology major as an undergrad at Ole Miss.

Circuit Court is more broadly known because that’s where criminal cases and most malpractice or wrongful death lawsuits are tried. Those are the things that grab headlines and TV news time.

But chancery court impacts more people, handling everything from divorces, alimony and child custody to titles, contracts and wills. It even takes care of ‘lunacy court,” the arcane name for what actually is legal commitments.

It’s also different because judges alone decide almost all cases. Seldom are juries used in chancery cases so judges shoulder an important load — and pressure — to get it right.

It’s seldom that two judges step down at once, much less three.

"We've gone back and searched here and in other areas and can't find anytime there's been this much turnover. It may have happened, but we haven't found it," said Lowndes County Circuit Court Clerk Teresa Barksdale.

Circuit Clerks oversee elections in each county. Secretary of State Delbert Hoseman's office also said it can't find a record of such widespread change in one district.

"It's pretty rare," a spokesperson said.

And in this case, because the district elects the judges by “places,” the number of candidates is likely to be even more diverse.

Burns represents the court district’s north and western areas — Chickasaw and Webster counties and part of Oktibbeha. His replacement most likely will come from those areas although someone from outside that territory could run and serve.

But only voters in the areas covered by Place 1 will vote in that race.

So far, among others, Starkville-based attorneys Elizabeth Fox, Rodney Faver, and Lee Ann Turner are among those who've indicated they may run for the post. Attorneys from Webster and Chickasaw also are likely to jump in.

Colom represents Place 3, which covers Noxubee and parts of Lowndes, Oktibbeha and Clay counties.

She actually lives in Place 2 but represents Place 3.

Only voters who live in Place 3 will vote in that race.

Attorneys Paula Drungole, Roy Perkins and Bennie Jones all have expressed an interest in that seat.

Davidson covers Place 2, which is most of Lowndes and part of Clay. Like the others, only voters in the region he serves will vote for his replacement Carrie Jourdan, Gary Goodwin and Joe Studdard are among those considering a run for his seat.

The biggest headache for voters will be figuring out which candidate for which they can vote. Because the district lines divide up counties, candidates often will sound like they are reaching out for the same vote in different districts.

"That's the toughest part early on for the candidates," Barksdale said. "It can be confusing." It gets even more confusing because while only voters in the respective places cast ballots for their judge, those elected make decisions on cases throughout the entire district. Justice court judges do the same thing in many counties.

And finally, the races are non-partisan, meaning candidates don't run by party affiliation. Voters will have to figure out candidate’s philosophical and political leanings on their own.

The qualifying begins Jan. 2 and ends at 5 p.m. May. 11.

The election is Nov. 6. If needed, a run-off is Nov. 27.