Mississippi Chief Justice Bill Waller, Jr. made visits around Founders Square at the Neshoba County Fair over the weekend. This is familiar territory for him both in his previous two successful campaigns for the Mississippi Supreme Court, and as a child with his father, Gov. Bill Waller, Sr. The elder Waller wrote in his memoir, "Straight Ahead" he was grateful for the support of Neshoba County in his election, aided by the endorsement of then-Neshoba Democrat Editor Stanley Dearman, Waller's "kinsman." Justice Waller seeks to continue the family tradition of public service as he campaigns for reelection this year for a third eight-year term.
A former Jackson municipal judge and retired brigadier general in the Mississippi Army National Guard, Waller was first elected in 1996 with 65.9 percent of the vote and reelected in 2004 with 74.2 percent of the vote. He rose to the position of Chief Justice (a position earned by seniority on the Court) in January 2009, following the defeat of former Chief Justice Jim Smith. Waller actually seeks to be the first Chief Justice to be reelected in more than twenty years with the most recent five prior Chiefs retiring or defeated after assuming the top post.
Waller's challenger seeks to keep that streak alive. State Representative Earle Banks, a Democrat of Jackson, an attorney and funeral home director in the legislature since 1993 is seeking to unseat Waller. Banks is cousin to former Supreme Court Justice Fred Banks who was appointed to the high court by Governor Ray Mabus and subsequently won two elections in the Central District. Banks consistently opposed efforts for tort reform and attorney general sunshine legislation and his average BIPEC (Business & Industry Political Education Committee) score floats around 25 (with 100 being perfect).
While judicial candidates run non-partisan elections, most campaigns are seen as a battle between the plaintiff's bar and litigation reform advocates. Banks is firmly on the plaintiff's side.
Waller's campaign faces some of the same challenges as Smith's reelection defeat in 2008, but the dynamics are different. Smith faced a concerted effort by the plaintiff's community to attack the Court's fairness with accusations it had moved too far toward the defense side in litigation. Whether effective or not in producing a general dissatisfaction with the Court, three of the four incumbents that cycle, including Smith, were defeated.
Smith also faced a folksy former district attorney who coincidentally had the same name as the former district attorney and judge in Madison and Rankin counties. He effectively cut into Smith's base in those counties and was aided by a higher than usual turnout in Hinds County in response to the historic presidential campaign of Barack Obama. Waller should do much better in Madison and Rankin than Smith, will likely see a lower turnout in Hinds for Obama than four years ago, and as a former judge in Hinds County (as well as the legacy of his Democratic governor father, who prosecuted the assassin of civil rights leader Medgar Evers) will do better than other white candidates in the black community.
Equally important, in all four 2008 Supreme Court races, the candidate who raised the most money won.
The most recent campaign finance reports posting totals raised through the end of June show Banks with a cash-on-hand of nearly $14,000 and Waller with a little over $71,000.
Waller has been endorsed by medical and physician and business groups. No surprise there considering Banks launched his campaign announcing, "For far too long, our Supreme Court has acted as if its sole purpose is to protect big corporations and out-of-state interests."
It is difficult to run on "issues" in judicial elections because of rules that restrict judicial candidates from certain campaign speech. Waller has generally been speaking about improved efficiencies and technology in the courts, the effectiveness of drug courts and his experience. Two issues which could have caused him problems involved the recent Supreme Court ruling refusing to strike down the late-term pardons by Gov. Haley Barbour, and the effort to give pay raises to judges across the state. On the pardons case, Waller joined Justices Mike Randolph (also up for reelection this year) and Bubba Pierce (reelection in 2016) in dissenting from the majority ruling. On the judicial pay raises, while Waller advocated the pay raise, his opponent Banks voted in favor of it in the legislature, removing that as an issue in the campaign.
Banks has yet to make a case for why he should replace Waller on the Court, but he will have that opportunity at the Neshoba County Fair on Thursday morning. Banks speaks at the Pavilion in historic Founders Square at 9:40 followed by Waller at 9:50. The Fair is the traditional kick-off for campaigns Mississippi and their speeches should set the tone for the November election.

Brian Perry is a partner in a public affairs firm. Reach him at reasonablyright@brianperry.ms or @CapstonePerry on Twitter.