Charlie Mitchell

State’s Supreme Court oath-taking won’t be quite as spectacular as inauguration

Before there’s wall-to-wall worldwide coverage of this guy Donald Trump taking his oath to head one branch of American government, there will be a much quieter ceremony here in Mississippi. Four of Mississippi’s nine state Supreme Court justices will take oaths — one a newcomer and the others re-elected to new terms.

Re-elected?

Yes. Remember? Mississippi staffs all state courts via the ballot box. Sometimes we don’t remember that until Election Day, when we see the names and wonder, “Who are these people?”

Still, it’s a system that has worked fairly well for 200 years, and there’s certainly no interest or impetus to change.

The Supreme Court, nominally a co-equal branch with the legislative and executive branches, has three justices from South Mississippi, three from Central Mississippi and three from North Mississippi. We should at least know their names.

The new justice to be sworn in Jan. 3 is from Hernando. On the day Trump was elected, Robert P. Chamberlin advanced to a runoff. There was bad weather and only about 40,000 people of about 630,000 eligible to cast a ballot actually did. Chamberlin won by about 4,000 votes.

That might appear to be less than a ringing endorsement in a state with 3 million people, but, again, that’s how these things work. It’s certainly nothing against soon-to-be Justice Chamberlin. He’s a former state senator and has been a circuit judge since being appointed by then-Gov. Haley Barbour in 2004. He’s well-qualified by any measure. He will take the place of Justice Ann Lamar, who did not seek re-election.

Justice James W. Kitchens was re-elected and will start his second eight-year term. He’s from Crystal Springs in Central Mississippi. He’s senior in terms of his birthday. He will turn 81 by the time his new term ends.

In addition to starting his first full term on the court, Justice James D. Maxwell II will be observing his first anniversary on the court. He was appointed 12 months ago by Gov. Phil Bryant after having served several years on the Mississippi Court of Appeals and as a federal prosecutor. Maxwell is from Oxford and he had no opponent in this year’s election.

Justice Dawn H. Beam will be celebrating a shorter anniversary. Also a Bryant appointee, she has been on the court since February. And she’ll be celebrating a ballot win. She was elected with 67 percent of the vote. More than 322,000 cast ballots in the South Mississippi District, and she garnered 217,000 of them.

Math is funny. Her margin of victory was 111,000 votes which, given the runoff tally for Chamberlin, means her margin was 27 times greater than his. Born in the Delta, Beam is from Sumrall.

Those starting new terms join the five additional justices:

• Chief Justice William Waller Jr. has been on the court 20 years. He’s from Jackson.

• Justice Josiah D. Coleman joined what has been a family business in 2013. His father, Thomas Coleman, served on the Mississippi Court of Appeals. His grandfather, J.P. Coleman, served as Mississippi governor, attorney general and a state Supreme Court justice, but may best be remembered for his years as a federal appellate judge for the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court. Coleman, the one now serving, grew up in Ackerman.

• Justice Jess H. Dickinson has been on the court 12 years. He was born in Charleston and practiced on the Gulf Coast before being chosen as a trial judge and later, the Supreme Court.

• Justice Michael K. Randolph has also been on the court for 12 years, initially appointed by Barbour and then elected twice to eight-year terms. The current one started in 2012. He’s lived and worked on the Coast and in Hattiesburg. He’s a Vietnam veteran, too.

• Justice Leslie D. King has been on the court for almost six years. He’s also a Barbour appointee, former chief judge of the Mississippi Court of Appeals, the court’s only African-American member and the only one who didn’t go to law school at Ole Miss. King, from Greenville, earned an Ole Miss undergraduate degree and obtained his law degree in Texas.

So that’s the list.

Seven white men, one woman (the fourth in the court’s history) and one African-American (the third since Reconstruction) are at the top level of judicial review for the state.

There was a time when decisions of the court were almost constantly in the news, but that’s no longer true. Not to be overly snarky, but in today’s world we think whatever Kim Kardashian is doing is more relevant, and the popular media oblige us.

The courts do still matter — even if few notice.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist.

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