In November, the Mississippi Supreme Court quietly made changes to our election process that could mean the public may not be informed about findings of unethical behavior during judicial campaigns.
Mississippi has a committee to keep an eye on races for Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, chancery court, circuit court and county court judges. The committee was created because of concerns about the increasing amount of money flowing into the state to influence elections, especially for the top courts.
In an order issued Nov. 30, the state Supreme Court revised the committee’s size (from five members to nine) and scope of operations (rather than be appointed for a single election year, the committee members serve for multiple years).
But the biggest change is the smallest – a single word.
Instead of saying the committing “shall” inform the public when it finds unethical campaign conduct, the new rule says the committee “may” inform the public of those offenses.
And, of course, what the committee “may” do, it “may not” do as well.
A system that does not allow voters to know of campaign violations undermines the idea that our judges should be independent arbiters of the law. One way to think of our judges is to compare them to a referee. If we were to know that a referee had a close connection or a rooting interest in one of the teams playing, it would call into question the integrity of the game, and the rulings of that referee would be open to criticism.
Our judges should be chosen on the basis of their competence in interpreting and applying the law, just like we would expect a referee to be an expert on the rules of the game.
These judicial campaigns are nonpartisan, at least nominally. Candidates don’t run under party affiliations and donations from political parties are prohibited, if not donations from groups that are aligned to parties. It’s those donations that should be carefully scrutinized.
Rulings such as this make us begin to wonder, quite frankly, if the Mississippi Supreme Court has lost its moral authority to ensure the independence of our state judiciary.
Remember, this is the same Supreme Court that stripped citizens of their constitutional right to amend the state constitution in its ruling on medical marijuana just last year, exploiting a technicality in the statute to defy the overwhelming will of the people. (The medical marijuana amendment was approved by an almost 3-to-1 margin.)
This ruling, too, we believe illustrates a disdain for the public that cannot be explained.
By changing the requirements of the oversight committee, the Supreme Court allows it to act by its own discretion. When an unelected body — such as this oversight committee — has that much latitude, citizens have every right to be suspicious.
When questionable campaign practices are made public, the people are empowered to make their own judgments. When an unelected committee made up of people whose motives are unknown to us are given the freedom to publicly expose some campaign shenanigans but not others, the legitimacy of our judicial elections is compromised.
Who benefits from a Supreme Court ruling that has the potential to corrupt our judicial elections through keeping silent unethical campaign conduct?
It’s certainly not the people.
How have our judicial elections been made fairer, more transparent by this ruling?
What happens when the highest court in our state chooses secrecy over transparency, when it seems to favor special interests over the will of the people?
We find all of these questions deeply disturbing.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.