Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann has been on the road since Labor Day in his effort to encourage citizens to vote in the Nov. 6 general election. The ballot will include a rarity — both of Mississippi’s U.S. Senate seats are up for grabs — along with three seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
But, some of the most important seats on the ballot are for local offices, especially chancery court judgeships, including all three posts in District 14, which encompasses all of the Golden Triangle along with Webster and Chickasaw counties.
“The thing about those chancery judge races is they affect everybody who dies or gets a divorce,” Hosemann said Thursday. “Everybody’s on one of those lists and, the last time I checked, half of us are on the other. Those races don’t get a lot of attention, but I’d say they’re pretty important.”
In District 14, chancery court judges Dorothy Colom (24 years on the bench in Place 3), Kenneth Burns (16 years, Place 1) and Jim Davidson (12 years, Place 2) all are retiring. Ten candidates are competing for those three seats.
Davidson admits most people aren’t all that aware of the job a chancery judge performs.
“Chancery court is what is called a court of equity,” Davidson said. “We are charged with arriving at a fair and equitable decision. Unlike, say, a circuit court judge, we are both the fact-finders and the decision-makers. There’s no black-letter law that says what our decision has to be. We don’t have juries. We are entrusted with reaching the decision.”
Burns said chancery court deals primarily with family issues and disputes.
“Chancery court involves anything involving a family,” Burns said. “When you talk about anything, that is related to divorce, alimony, child support, adoptions, wills and estates and real estate matters. That’s most of what we do as chancery judges.”
Although the work of the chancery judge is not a high-profile job — most judges’ names are rarely in the media — their work affects more lives than that of other judges.
“You could make a pretty good argument that what we do affects more people and for a lot longer time than any other court,” Davidson said. “Just take a child custody case. The decision we make doesn’t just affect that child on the day we rule. It affects that child for the rest of his or her life. The same is true for the child’s family. It has a lifetime impact.”
The qualities of a good candidate
Given the importance of their work, Burns and Davidson said voters should try to get as much information as they can about the candidates.
For Colom, the ideal candidate should embody three qualities she learned while attending a church service early in her career.
“The minister quoted a passage from the Bible and I wrote it down and I’ve kept it with me all these years,” she said. “It was, ‘Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly’ (Micah 6:8).”
For Colom “do justice” means doing what the law requires and doing the right thing based on the law. But it goes beyond that, she said.
“In some of these cases we have a lot of discretion,” she said.
To “love mercy” as a judge means being understanding, she said.
“A lot of the people that come before us don’t know what to expect,” she said. “Often, they are scared. You have to be understanding of them.”
Colom said that understanding should also be extended to the attorneys who present cases as well as staff — everyone from court reporters, to chancery clerks, bailiffs and others.
“For me, walking humbly means you have to be respectful and act professional,” she said. “You have to maintain integrity, communicate clearly and encourage courtesy in the court.
“Someone who does those three things, that’s the kind of person who would be a good judge,” she added.
Burns said remembering the proper role of the judge is also important.
“I’d look for someone who is willing to work hard, keep up with the law, be respectful to people and to realize that it’s not (the judge’s) court,” Burns said. “It’s the people’s court.”
Davidson added: “Every candidate is going to know the law or have access to the law. That’s not the issue. Experience and knowing how to handle disputes quickly and fairly as you can, that’s what matters. You have to be able to cut through a lot of stuff and arrive at a decision that is fair and equitable.”
In the Golden Triangle, voters will have one chancery court race on their ballot, depending on where they live in the district.
All chancery judge elections are non-partisan, meaning that candidates do not run as representatives of a political party.
Voters in the western half of Oktibbeha County and all of Webster and Chickasaw counties will vote for District 14, Place 1 chancery judge. Voters in parts of Lowndes and Clay counties will vote for the Place 2 judge seat and voters in Noxubee County and parts of Lowndes and Clay counties will vote for the Place 3 position.
Because the jurisdiction lines can cut through a neighborhood, Oktibbeha County Circuit Clerk Tony Rook said it’s important voters make sure their registration includes their current address and respond to notifications from the circuit clerk’s office.
“You can be pulled from the voter rolls if you don’t respond to our communications,” Rook said.
The deadline to register to vote is 30 days before the Nov. 6 election, which means the last day to register in-person is Oct. 8. Absentee voting should begin the week of Sept. 24 and continue through Nov. 3.
Anyone who is unsure of which judge election they will vote for can call the circuit clerk’s office during regular hours.
Reporter Alex Holloway contributed to this report.
Chancery court judge candidates
District 14-1 (part of Oktibbeha County; Webster and Chickasaw counties)
■ Elizabeth Fox Ausbern
■ Gene Barton
■ R. Todd Bennett
■ Rodney Faver
■ Lee Ann Turner
District 14-2 (Parts of Lowndes and Clay counties)
■ Gary Street Goodwin
■ Carrie A. Jourdan
■ Joseph N. “Joe” Studdard
District 14-3 (Noxubee County; parts of Lowndes, Oktibbeha and Clay counties)
■ Paula Drungole-Ellis
■ Roy A. Perkins
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]