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Bobby Harrison

African Americans make up 38 percent of the state’s population, but only 11 percent of the membership of the Mississippi Supreme Court. This November's election could change that.

Latrice Westbrooks of Lexington, one of two African Americans on the 10-member Court of Appeals, is challenging long-time Mississippi jurist Kenny Griffis in the November general election for a spot on the Supreme Court representing the Central District of Mississippi.

While Griffis has more judicial experience, Westbrooks is a formidable candidate – an experienced attorney who has won a district-wide race for the state’s second-highest court. In short, both candidates can tout qualifications. But what makes this race unique is that it provides the best opportunity in the state’s history for there to be two black justices on the Supreme Court at the same time.

Since 1985, Democratic and Republican governors have made efforts to ensure there would be at least one black Mississippian on the Supreme Court – all representing the same Central District post. Supreme Court justices are elected from three districts – three each from the Northern, Southern, and Central districts. In 1985, Democrat Gov. Bill Allain appointed Hinds County Circuit Court Judge Reuben Anderson to a vacant spot, making him the first African American on the Supreme Court as created by Mississippi’s 1890 Constitution.

Anderson later won election to the post before resigning to go into private law practice. At that point, Democratic Gov. Ray Mabus appointed another black jurist to the seat, Fred Banks, who was elected to the post twice before resigning and being replaced by James Graves, who was appointed by Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove.

Graves also won election to the seat, but then was appointed to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals by President Barack Obama. At that point in 2011, Republican Gov. Haley Barbour appointed Leslie King, who remains the only black member of the court.

During the 35-year time period that four African Americans have held the same seat from the Central District, white Mississippians have held the other two Central District seats.

In late 2018, Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. resigned from his Central District seat and eventually ran for governor where he reached a runoff before losing to Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves.

To replace Waller, Gov. Phil Bryant appointed Griffis, who was chief judge of the Court of Appeals, where he served with Westbrooks.

The Central District, according to the 2010 Census, has an African American voting-age population of 51 percent. Public service commissioners and transportation commissioners also are elected from the same districts as Supreme Court justices.

Both Democrats and Republicans have prevailed in recent Central District elections. In 2019, Democrat Willie Simmons, also an African American, won the Central District Transportation Commission seat. But in the same year Republican Brent Bailey was elected to the Public Service Commission from the Central District, defeating De’Keither Stamps, an African American member of the Jackson City Council.

The Westbrooks-Griffis Supreme Court election is expected to be more competitive than most judicial contests. Both candidates are lining up support. While candidates for judicial seats do not declare a party affiliation, much of the Republican establishment and much of the business community are lining up for Griffis, who was first elected to the Court of Appeals in the early 2000s as a candidate supporting changes to the civil justice system to provide more protection from a lawsuit for businesses.

“As a legislator I know how important it is to have justices on our Supreme Court who properly interpret and apply the law without trying to legislate from the bench,” said state Sen. Jennifer Branning, R-Philadelphia. “That’s why I’m supporting Justice Griffis. He’s a constitutional conservative who deserves our support based on his record, character, and work ethic.”

Of course, many Democratic groups are lining up behind Westbrooks – as is Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs, who is an independent.

“I have known her for a long time,” Flaggs said. “She always has been passionate and an advocate for helping those who are less fortunate.”

But Flaggs said the fact Westbrooks is African American is not the reason he is supporting her.

“I would love to see another African American, particularly a female, on the Supreme Court,” said Flaggs. “I think that would make great history for Mississippi. But at the same time she has the qualifications to be on the Supreme Court and, besides that she is a great person.”

Oh, by the way, in addition to one African American currently serving on the Supreme Court, there also is one woman – Dawn Beam of Sumrall in the Southern District. Like with black justices, there have been only four women justices in the state's history – two – Beam and Ann Hannaford Lamar – serving together for a brief period in 2016.

This column was produced by Mississippi Today, a nonprofit news organization that covers state government, public policy, politics, and culture.

Bobby Harrison is Mississippi Today’s senior Capitol reporter.