By JACK ELLIOTT JR.
Associated Press Writer
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The Mississippi Supreme Court will lose one of its independent voices when Oliver Diaz Jr. makes his exit in January, says a law professor.
Diaz was one of three justices — Chief Justice Jim Smith and Justice Chuck Easley — losing re-election bids Tuesday.
However, Matt Steffey, a professor at the Mississippi College School of Law, said Wednesday that the judge who defeated Diaz will bring to the high court valuable chancery court experience that "is a big part of the judicial experience for many Mississippians."
Chancery Judge Randy "Bubba" Pierce defeated Diaz with 58 percent of the vote according to complete but unofficial returns.
Diaz, 48, was acquitted in two federal trials — one on bribery charges in 2005 and another in a tax-evasion case in 2006. A former Court of Appeals judge, Diaz was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2000. He won election in November 2000 in a bitter, expensive campaign in which he was targeted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
In the closing weeks of the campaign, Diaz was stung by third-party ads that attacked his record on the court. The ads were condemned as misleading by a watchdog group.
Pierce, 43, is a former lawmaker who was appointed to the chancery court in 2005. He said his chancery court work immersed him in the needs of families in crisis and the impact on children. He said that perspective is missing on the Supreme Court.
Steffey said Diaz must have felt "like a game animal for the past few years ... being stalked and relentlessly hunted by a better armed opponent," said Steffey, referring to Diaz' trials over the past eight years.
"He was the subject of baseless criminal charges and beat them. He was the target of the first million dollar election in 2000 and beat it. I think he just ran out of lives," Steffey said.
In the other elections, longtime trial attorney Jim Kitchens defeated Smith in what many had thought would be a close contest. Kitchens got 54 percent of the vote. Former Chancery Judge Ceola James of Vicksburg ran a distant third.
Court of Appeals Judge David Anthony Chandler got 67 percent of the vote to defeat Easley in one of two north Mississippi elections. In the other, Justice Ann H. Lamar defeated Okolona attorney Gene Barton with almost 62 percent of the vote.
Steffey said Chandler will bring an important perspective to the Supreme Court.
"The bulk of the appellate work is done by the Court of Appeals and having former judges from the Court of Appeals on the Supreme Court is a good thing," he said.
Despite the losses of three sitting justices, Kyle Duncan, an assistant law professor at the University of Mississippi, said he doesn't see any drastic changes ahead for the Supreme Court.
Duncan, who tracked the Supreme Court's decisions from 2004-2008 in research for the Federalist Society, said he expects the court to avoid activism and continue a path of restraint that he calls "just interpreting the plain letter of the law."
"From my point of view that is a desirable thing.
"Although Easley just hasn't written much for the court, he was often in dissent with Diaz, who has written quite a bit and was often in dissent. Diaz was often trying to reach out and decide issues that in my view really weren't before the court. More likely than not the judge who is replacing him will be — for lack of a better word — more conservative than Diaz was," Duncan said.
By JACK ELLIOTT JR.
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