The Special Committee on Judicial Election Campaign Intervention recently issued an opinion stating Madison County’s newest Circuit Court Judge must repay nearly $19,000 for what they call an “improper campaign contribution.”

Circuit Judge Dewey Arthur’s judicial committee, Friends of Dewey Arthur, received a contribution of $18,814 on Oct. 5 2018 from the Committee to Elect William E. Chapman III. Arthur’s report was not filed until Nov. 8, three days after the general election, but nearly three weeks before the Nov. 27 runoff.

Arthur defeated Andy Stewart in a runoff election in November to fill Chapman’s seat. Chapman did not seek re-election. 

The Special Committee is formed each election cycle to “issue advisory opinions and to deal expeditiously with allegations of ethical misconduct in campaigns for judicial office,” according to the Administrative Office of Courts. The five-member panel is chaired by Judge Kenny Griffis Jr. of Ridgeland, who was recently tapped by Gov. Phil Bryant to the Mississippi Supreme Court. 

The Special Committee on Judicial Election Campaign Intervention was alerted to this particular donation by the Mississippi Secretary of State’s Office, which also alerted the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office of the donation. 

In its opinion, the Special Committee did not identify Arthur and Chapman by name, but instead by an alphabet codename officials say is designed for confidentiality. The Journal has confirmed through multiple sources the opinion addressed Arthur and Chapman’s judicial committees. 

According to the opinion, Arthur and his committee contend the Secretary of State’s Office was contacted and they were told that there was no issue with the contribution. 

“The Committee and the candidate contend that they were given an assurance that this transaction would not violate (state law),” the opinion states.

The Secretary of State’s Office told the Special Committee that “it does not issue written opinions” and instead refers questions to the Ethics Commission and AG’s Office, according to the opinion.

The Special Committee said the contribution violated the Canons of the Code of Judicial Conduct, because sitting judges are prohibited from making campaign contributions and engaging in political activity. 

The Special Committee also stated in its opinion the contribution exceeded the limit for a circuit court race, which are $2,500 from individuals and PACs and $1,000 from corporations. There is no reference to judicial committees though, which are different from individuals, PACs and corporations. 

“The contribution greatly exceeded the limits placed on judicial campaigns by the Mississippi legislature and the Code of Judicial Conduct,” the opinion reads. “The Special Committee is of the opinion that the (Friends of Dewey Arthur) accepted an improper campaign contribution from an incumbent judge’s committee and a contribution that exceeds the reasonable limits imposed by the Mississippi election law and the Code of Judicial Conduct.”

The Special Committee gave Arthur a Jan. 15 deadline to repay the money to Chapman’s committee. It also referred the report to the Commission on Judicial Performance for further consideration.

Attempts to contact Chapman were unsuccessful and Arthur declined to comment at this time. 

Darlene Ballard, executive director of the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance, declined to comment about the specific case, but did say a request had been made to extend the repayment deadline to Jan. 31. 

Ballard said judicial candidates attend a spring seminar where they discuss the dos and don’ts of judicial campaigning and have officials with the Secretary of State’s Office there to discuss the “financial end of it.”

Ballard said she could not discuss whether or not this particular case would be discussed by the Commission on Judicial Performance. 

“At the end of the day, if a candidate does not comply with the opinion that’s issued by the Special Committee, we make it public to the media or refer to the Commission,” she said.

Ballard said the Commission has no disciplinary authority, only that it makes recommendations to the Mississippi Supreme Court for discipline. 

Disciplinary actions by the Supreme Court could include suspension, sanctions, or even removal from the bench.