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Graves reclaims bench in runoff

[11/17/2004] Justice James Graves Jr., who touted his experience and the importance of education in his campaign to keep his central district Supreme Court post, brushed aside Rankin County Circuit Judge Samac Richardson in Tuesday’s runoff election.

With nearly all 628 precincts reporting, Graves received 56 percent of the vote. Richardson had 44 percent in the unofficial returns.

Warren County also went for Graves, 63 percent to 37 percent.

“Hooray,” Graves said Tuesday night without answering any questions about his victory.

Turnout for the runoff election was light in most of the 22-county district.

In Warren County, 6,947 votes were cast for a voter turnout of about 20 percent. By contrast, 20,120 votes were cast for a 58-percent turnout in the general election two weeks earlier.

“One of the things you’ve heard a lot of people say about Graves is that he was a good justice. A lot of people took note of the fact that he was capable and did his job well,” said Marty Wiseman, director of Mississippi State University’s Stennis Institute of Government.

“Given the mind-set of the other (justices), I think that he will keep some balance on the court rather than swinging the pendulum further in the direction of the business community and further tort reform,” Wiseman said.

Graves, who was appointed by Gov. Ronnie Musgrove to fill a vacancy in 2001, was among four sitting judges in races this year.

Justices William Waller, George C. Carlson and Mike Randolph, who all won on Nov. 2, received large donations from business and medical groups that support limits on awards in civil justice lawsuits.

Graves’ campaign contributions were fueled largely by trial lawyers, who are opposed to more limits in such cases.

Graves, a Hinds County Circuit Court judge from 1991 to 2001, said before the polls closed that citizens understand the importance of selecting someone “who has the character, credentials and qualifications to serve with honor, dignity and integrity.”

Graves is the only black member of the high court.

A runoff was required because none of the four candidates received the necessary 50 percent, plus one vote to win outright Nov. 2. Graves led with nearly 48 percent while Richardson had 30 percent.

Richardson who also was supported by organizations advocating civil justice reform said that was a critical issue in the race.

“I don’t really find myself on either side of that issue. I look at myself as following the law and being fair to everybody,” Richardson said.

Richardson congratulated Graves on his victory.

“I’m sure he’s going to do us a great job on the bench. The voters have spoken and the will of the voters will be followed,” he said.

The Improve Mississippi Political Action Committee made an independent expenditure of $47,375 to Richardson’s campaign, finance records show. The PAC spent $373,212 in the state races. Much of the PAC’s funds came from The American Tort Reform Association.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court amended its rules on how Mississippi courts would handle mass lawsuits. Mississippi had become known as a haven for multimillion-dollar verdicts but state lawmakers have since adopted caps on punitive and compensatory damage awards.

Carlson, Randolph and Waller have said the court’s shifting philosophy on civil justice litigation would stay its course.

Wiseman said the state’s appellate system has modified the civil justice cases coming out of lower trial courts.

“The court of appeals and the Supreme Court have been very effective at putting the brakes on and dealing with the matter of joinder and other things,” Wiseman said.

The runoff election was the only one on Warren County ballots Tuesday. Three contested and three uncontested races for county district positions and one contested race each for U.S. Representative and president were decided by Nov. 2 balloting.