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Three vie for seat on state Supreme Court

Incumbent Supreme Court Justice Charles R. “Chuck” McRae issquaring off against two strong challengers in Tuesday’s generalelection with Jess Dickinson and Larry Buffington.

McRae, 62, grew up in Pascagoula, but graduated high school inPittsburgh, Pa. He graduated from Marietta College in Marietta,Ohio, in 1962 and began teaching and coaching at high schools inMoss Point and Panama City, Fla.

He graduated cum laude from Jackson School of Law, nowMississippi College School of Law, in 1970 and returned toPascagoula to practice law. He later established a private firmwith Margaret Ellis.

McRae has served as a Circuit and Chancery Court judge. Prior tohis election to the state’s highest court in 1990, he was anattorney for the Jackson County School Board and the PascagoulaPolice Association.

He is a lifetime member of the Mississippi Trial LawyersAssociation and has served there as both governor and president. Heis a member of the Trial Lawyers of America, Civil JusticeFoundation, American Judicature Society, Federal Bar Association,American Bar Association and First United Methodist Church ofPascagoula.

It’s McRae’s adventurous lifestyle, however, which has castdoubts on his ability as a judge. McRae pleaded no contest to adrunken driving charge in 1995 in Rankin County and a similarcharge made in 1998 in Hinds County was dismissed in 1999. He wasalso found guilty of speeding in Hinds County Justice Court.

McRae has the support of the labor unions and trial lawyers.

If McRae wins the election, he would be next in line to becomechief justice in 2005. Chief Justice Edwin Pittman has alreadyannounced he won’t seek re-election in 2004.

Dickinson, a newcomer, has been touted as McRae’s strongestopponent. Dickinson, a Gulfport attorney, has practiced law forabout 20 years but has never held an office on the bench.

He holds a bachelor’s degree from Mississippi State Universityand graduated cum laude from the University of Mississippi Schoolof Law. He is an adjunct professor of law at William Carey Collegeand a partner in the law firm of Dickinson, Ros, Wooten and Samson.He is a member of Grace Memorial Baptist Church of Gulfport.

Dickinson, 55, said he decided to run for the office in aneffort to restore public confidence in the judicial system.

“I am very concerned about the loss of respect and confidence inour legal and judicial systems,” he said. “We can only restore thatrespect and confidence when our citizens know their judges arefair, give no special treatment, and are prepared and qualified,both in their public and private lives.”

Dickinson is supported by the medical and business communities,but said no special interest group prompted him to run or holdssway over his decisions.

“It occurred to me that if no one ran against Judge McRae thathe would soon be our chief justice and that was not acceptable tome,” he has said. “This agenda that Judge McRae has promoted is anagenda of certain trial lawyers, and I’m not going to be perceivedas having that agenda because I don’t.”

Dickinson was born in Charleston and raised by his grandparents.He was an average student at East Tallahatchie High School.

He tried several different things after graduating high schooland has received some criticism for businesses he owned beforecompleting his law degree.

He moved to L.A. after a brief stay in college and worked at arecording studio and sold pizza until moving to Little Rock, wherehis father lived, to make another try at college.

He worked his way up to becoming a restaurant manager beforeopening a restaurant/discotheque in Arkansas. He later opened otherrestaurant/discos in Meridian and Hattiesburg and co-opened one inMcComb when he returned to Mississippi.

In his late 20s, he said, he entered college for the third timeand graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business and accountingfrom Mississippi State in 1978. He finished law school at theUniversity of Mississippi in 1982.

Buffington, 49, will be a judge regardless of the result of theSupreme Court election, but hopes to pull a surprise victoryTuesday.

He has been the Chancery Court judge for eight years of adistrict consisting of Lawrence, Jefferson Davis, Covington,Simpson and Smith counties. He is running unopposed in thatelection.

Despite being a shoe-in to continue on the bench, Buffingtonwould like to reach higher and take a seat on the Supreme Court. Hebelieves his reputation as chancery judge will carry some weight inthe higher race.

Buffington has not received the financial contributions of hisopponents and has therefore not advertised in the media as much,but said he hopes to force a run-off election where it becomes “anew ball game.”

His big advantage, he said, is that 65 percent of the cases thatcome before the Supreme Court are chancery cases and no one on thestate’s highest court has chancery court experience.

Buffington is a 1980 graduate of Mississippi College School ofLaw. Before becoming chancery judge, he was a public defender and acity prosecutor in Collins.

Editor’s Note: The Associated Press contributed to thisstory.