CivicsEngine discovered a majority of local and judicial elections were uncontested in 2020, signaling complications for U.S. democracy.
The Mississippi Secretary of State’s website lists all Chancery, Circuit and Appeals court judicial races up for contest this year, as well as one special election for the Desoto County district attorney’s office. That list shows less than 10 of those roughly 100 actually qualifying as a race. The vast majority of these positions contain an unworried incumbent looking forward to another effortless term in office without having to campaign. These same “contestants” also don’t have to explain themselves or their judicial record to their voters.
A national comprehensive database, CivicEngine, discovered a depressingly-high rate of uncontested political races in the U.S. in 2020. According to CivicEngine 1,377 of 2,142 (64 percent) of mayor or city executive positions are uncontested, as well as 62 percent of school board races. Judicial races ranked even higher on that list with an unbelievable 1,510 of 1,784 judgeships in 2020 going uncontested. That’s 84 percent of judicial seats across the nation, including state supreme court spots, circuit court seats, county court positions and probate courts.
Candidate David F. Linzey is running for a seat in Circuit Court District 7-1 against incumbent Judge Adrienne Wooten. Linzey said some judicial races are uncompetitive because many candidates come from a legal background and they plan to continue working in the legal industry if they lose.
“Some judges are really good and no one feels the need to challenge them because they know what they’re doing. But with other judges, there’s a certain amount of fear,” Linzey told The Lighthouse. “No (practicing attorney) really wants to go through the process of running against judges because … you might end up with a case in that particular judge’s courtroom.”
Incumbent Judge Adrienne Wooten could not be reached in time to contribute to this article. Whatever the reasons, the near complete absence of competition in Mississippi’s judicial races is a large concern, particularly with our justice system’s problematic history.
Studies show an empty ballot with few or no candidates hurts voter participation. An increase in candidate selection almost automatically increases voter interest because voters benefit from candidates with clearly defined differences. Two old white guys who both promote themselves as “hanging judges” in the same race will only attract voters seeking a hanging judge. Philosophical options give more people a reason to show up at the polls. Races with no competition at all can potentially do even more damage by allowing a single candidate to settle into policies favoring the wealthy or special interest groups to the exclusion of everybody else.
While judges can’t do things like bankrupt their own states with endless tax cuts for the rich they can still do damage. Hinds County, Mississippi made national news in 2015 when former Circuit Judge Jeff Weill tried to reassign 55 defendants represented by Hinds County Assistant Public Defender Alison Kelly to private attorneys. Trey Baker, legislative counsel for U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, lodged a complaint with then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder over Weill’s decision, arguing that it “systematically undercut the local public defender services.”
Kelly had a history of vigorously defending clients she saw as underprivileged minorities, and Weill, a white Republican, allegedly didn’t appreciate her fervor. Fellow public defender Michele Purvis Harris told Weill where to stuff his opinion of Kelly and the public defender’s office, and this prompted the judge to have the bailiff physically remove Harris from the courtroom. Weill also briefly jailed public defender Chris Routh, who campaigned for Weill’s opponent, David McCarty.
Critics described Weill as a harsh judge with little sympathy for minority defendants. They argued also that his mindset did not reflect that of his majority-Black district. The competitiveness of Weill’s seat soon ended the issue when a more compassionate challenger defeated him in a runoff. This type of victory is not easily replicated in Mississippi’s other judicial races. A stagnant judicial district with poor voter participation potentially delivers the worst kind of judge because elected judges are not just judges; they are politicians. And politicians win elections by appealing to a certain kind of voter.
Mississippi is the second highest imprisoner in the nation. Its judicial candidates brag openly about locking away defendants for the rest of their lives. Consider former Mississippi Supreme Court Judge David Chandler who admitted in commercials that he almost never takes appeals cases seriously and prefers to keep potentially innocent citizens in prison. In his ad, Chandler boasted about “affirming criminal cases 96 percent of the time.” These are cases a convicted defendant appeals up to a higher court for valid reasons. Maybe the defendant feels the prosecution corruptly withheld exonerating evidence from the jury, or their public defender was an idiot, or the judge was racist or whatever. But Chandler was proud to consistently side with prosecutors in those lower courts, even though his alleged job, as a supreme court judge, was to make impartial decisions on appeals. Chandler gleefully promised voters he would almost always side with prosecutors, no matter how disjointed or sloppy their case.
Trent L. Walker is a defense attorney running for Circuit Court District 7-2 against opponents Bryant D. Guy and Wendy S. Wilson-White. Walker said he can easily cite examples of sloppy judicial behavior, many of them to the detriment of potentially innocent defendants. (Neither of Walker’s opponents could be reached in time for the article.)
“There was one case I tried a dozen years or so ago. I was in court with a judge who shall remain nameless,” said Walker, who then recalled that judge giving his team only a handful of weeks to build a complicated defense plan for a murder indictment.
“The problem you sometimes have is a prosecutor that is not motivated to plead out cases. I seriously question whether they even looked at the evidence,” Walker told The Lighthouse. “They did not make a plea offer to try to tempt me with manslaughter or something else to approach the client with. They were very confident that in this particular jurisdiction under this judge they’d be able to get a guilty (verdict.)”
A murder conviction in Mississippi can end with an execution order, which adds considerable heat to the issue.
“You had a person whose life was on the line,” Walker said. “But if you looked at the facts of the case it screamed ‘self-defense’ and ‘defense of others.’”
Walker managed to nab a “not guilty” verdict in that particular case, but scary scenarios like his are the reality when an entrenched judge has an incestuous relationship with the county’s prosecutorial team.
For this reason alone, Walker urged voters and prospective candidates to remind judges that their jobs must be earned.
“Competition is what creates good government,” he said. “Voters need to be confident that the leaders they elect are trying to work in their interests.”