By BRIAN PERRY
Mississippi’s judicial elections this year resulted in the first African-American woman elected to the Court of Appeals, the first re-elected Chief Justice in decades and the creation of the third generation in a judicial family legacy.
In a victory for perseverance that will give the Shawn O’Haras of Mississippi hope, Ceola James defeated E.J. Russell for a seat on the Court of Appeals.
James, of Vicksburg, has served in various appointed judicial roles and served as Ninth District Chancery Judge from 1999 until 2002. She ran for the Supreme Court in 2004 and garnered 5.3 percent of the vote in a four-person race. She ran for Supreme Court again in 2008 and improved to 10 percent of the vote in a three-person race. In 2010, she challenged Justice Tyree Irving for a seat on the Court of Appeals and earned 34 percent of the vote. This year, in the same district as 2010, she pulled an upset in unseating Russell with more than 60 percent of the vote.
James, the first African American woman to be elected to the Court of Appeals, will replace Russell, the first African American woman to serve on the Court of Appeals. Russell was appointed to the Court by Gov. Haley Barbour and is only the second Barbour judicial appointee out of 28 to lose re-election (the other was defeated by another Barbour judicial appointee).
James was a leader in the 1972 civil rights boycott in Vicksburg. The Mississippi Supreme Court rebuked her in 2005 for a violation of the Mississippi Rules of Professional Conduct when, after presiding over a mother’s petition for child protection and leaving the bench, she tried to represent the mother in seeking modification of the divorce decree.
A third candidate in this race, Latrice Westbrooks, was not allowed on the ballot because she did not live in the district. In the pre-election campaign finance report, James reported raising under $4000 for the campaign, Russell raised slightly over $20,000 and Westbrooks raised $30,000.
In another district, Appeals Court Justice Gene Fair (another Barbour appointee) won election unopposed.
On the Mississippi Supreme Court, Chief Justice Bill Waller, Jr. could now put a greater personal stamp on the Court than any other chief justice in at least the last 20 years. None of his five predecessors were re-elected to the Court after achieving the seniority based chief position; they either retired or were defeated for re-election.
Waller’s father was a Democratic governor, but the junior Waller was endorsed by the Mississippi Republican Party for the nonpartisan position. If he serves out the full eight years of his new term, Waller could establish himself as the most influential chief justice since the GOP rose to prominence in Mississippi.
Waller turned back a challenge by Democratic state Rep. Earle Banks who started the campaign with promises of a positive campaign but ended the campaign with attacks on Waller’s integrity, accusing him of being bought by his campaign contributors. Waller defeated Banks with 55 percent of the vote in a district won by President Barack Obama with 54 percent of the vote and carried by the Democratic challenger to incumbent Republican Sen. Roger Wicker.
Also in the Central District, Justice Leslie King (another Barbour appointee) won election unopposed. He previously served three terms on the Court of Appeals winning election in 1994, 2000 and 2008 — always unopposed.
Josiah D. Coleman of Toccopola posted a convincing victory with 58 percent of the vote over Richard “Flip” Phillips of Batesville in the Northern District Supreme Court race for the open seat being vacated by the retirement of Justice George Carlson.