Coleman, Phillips locked in tight race for high court spot

October 25, 2012 10:15:37 AM

Sarah Fowler - [email protected]


Editor's Note: The third in a series of stories previewing the Nov. 6 election. Today: Supreme Court. 




If there was a race that Mississippi voters seemed to know the least about, it would likely be the race for the District 3 Supreme Court seat.  


Josiah Dennis Coleman will face Richard "Flip" Phillips in the Nov. 6 election for a seat on Mississippi's highest court.  


Required to run without official party affiliation, both candidates have been pounding the pavement to convince voters that they are the clear choice for the seat vacated by retiring Justice George Carlson. 


Coleman, 39, has been endorsed by the National Federation of Independent Business, the Business and Industry Political Education Committee, the Mississippi Hospital Association, the Mississippi Manufacturers Association and the Mississippi Home Builders Association, to name a few.  


The majority of Phillips's campaign contributors are fellow lawyers and members of both the business and medical communities.  


Phillips, 65, touts himself as a champion for business and has served as the past president and board member of the Panola County Industrial Development Foundation. He is currently the attorney for the Panola Partnership.  


He has been practicing law for more than 40 years, starting his career in the district attorney's office and later becoming a founding partner in the law firm Smith, Phillips, Mitchell, Scott & Nowak. 


His lengthy legal experience includes representing both local government and corporations. Phillips serves as the city prosecutor for the City of Batesville and board attorney for the Desoto County Board of Supervisors.  


He also represents First Security Bank, Tallahatchie Valley Electric Power Association, and the South Panola School District. 


Coleman, was admitted to the Mississippi Bar in 1999. He clerked for a federal judge for two years and briefly practiced law in Tupelo before moving to Oxford. 


He currently practices with Holland, Gaza and Spragins and focuses primarily in appellate work.  




Handicapping the race 


Marty Wiseman, director of the Stennis Institute at Mississippi State University said this particular judicial race has garnered more attention than typical Supreme Court races. 


"It's turned into a pretty good race," Wiseman said. "A lot of people have been talking about that more so than you usually hear." 


The legal community, both plaintiff and defense attorneys throughout the state, have come out in support of Phillips.  


Jack Dunbar, an attorney in Oxford who has faced Phillips in court, speaks highly of his sometime court-room foe. He is actively advocating for Phillips among his peers in the legal profession. 


"Flip has been primarily a lawyer who tried cases for claimants, but also for defendants," Dunbar said in a widely distributed email. "In my career, I was most often on the other side of the table from Flip.  


"I have been primarily a civil defense lawyer, representing doctors, hospitals, manufacturers of products, and corporate interests. I have tried many cases against Flip. I won the cases I should have, and so did he, but never did I feel he took a frivolous case or one without merit. He always played it straight, and by the rules,"  


Dunbar said many other attorneys, both defense and prosecutors, support Phillips as well.  


"There are many other defense lawyers like me, supporting his candidacy because we all agree that he is a lawyer of integrity who will call it like it is as a judge on our Supreme Court," Dunbar wrote. 


State representative Gary Chism, who is also an insurance salesman in Columbus, wholeheartedly disagrees with Dunbar and supports Coleman.  


"You've got a known trial lawyer (Phillips) running for Supreme Court," he said.  


"Coleman has committed to follow the law and the Constitution,'' Chism said, noting that Coleman understands that it is the legislators' job to make law, not the judges'. 


Chism said he fears if Phillips is elected, it could be a serious blow to tort reform legislation in the state. 


"Flip Phillips has been involved in the suing of companies that helped tag Mississippi as being a judicial hellhole," said the Republican legislator. "If he gets elected, I am afraid he is going to turn back the clock on tort reform we passed in 2004." 


The Tort Reform Act of 2004 was passed in the legislature in an effort to curb limit jury verdicts in civil cases. 


On his campaign website, Coleman affirmed his support of judicial restraint. 


"Judges should not act to make public policy as though they were members of the legislative branch -- they should fairly interpret our current laws." 


But Phillips says efforts to portray him as an activist are not accurate. 


"It's a lawyer's job to represent the interest of his clients. It's a judge's job to apply the law enacted by the legislature." 


Phillips said his experience and his knowledge of the law should translate if he is elected to the high court.  


If elected, Phillips has vowed to retire after the eight-year term.  


While the younger candidate has less courtroom experience than the seasoned Phillips, he said he feels his career thus far has prepared him for a seat on the Supreme Court.  


"Given the experience that I've had as an attorney, I feel like serving as a judge on the Mississippi is how I can best serve our state,'' he said. 




Close race predicted 


Wiseman says Coleman's youth may work in his favor in one regard.  


"Coleman's youth may be benefiting him because he's got enough energy to run a campaign," Wiseman said. "I've heard a lot of people compliment him on his very energetic campaigning." 


Wiseman added that while most voters typically expect an elder statesman to run for Supreme Court, Coleman's age is not necessarily a factor.  


"Generally when we think of the high court, we think of a little bit of gray around the temples but there is nothing wrong with a judge in his late 30s. He's seen enough," Wiseman said.  


The grandson of the late former Mississippi Governor J.P. Coleman, Coleman said his family's passion for public service served as an example of character and moral fiber.  


"The principles and dedication of public service that my father and grandfather showed influenced me," Coleman said. "I was watching the courtroom, but I was also watching how they lead their lives. Of course that influenced me. It influences who I am." 


Both Coleman and Phillips are new to the political arena and Wiseman said the race is a toss-up.  


"It's hard to predict a non-partisan race," Wiseman said. " I am sure the parties know who they're for but the rank and file voters don't necessarily know. I think they're both qualified. It certainly will be interesting to see exactly where that goes."

Sarah Fowler covered crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.