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Smith v. Webster

Supreme Court of Mississippi

May 25, 2017


          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 09/16/2015






         ¶1. This election contest arises from a November 4, 2014, general election for the circuit judge seat in Mississippi's eleventh circuit district, subdistrict 3 ("subdistrict 11-3 "). The special judge granted Charles Webster's motion for summary judgment, finding no genuine issue of material fact existed regarding which candidate received the most votes in the election. Aggrieved, Chaka Smith appealed. We affirm the trial judge's grant of summary judgment in favor of Webster.


         ¶2. On November 4, 2014, a general election was held for the subdistrict 11-3 circuit judge seat. Subdistrict 11-3 encompasses all voting precincts in Tunica County, as well as certain statutorily designated voting precincts in both Coahoma and Quitman Counties. Both Webster and Smith sought the subdistrict 11-3 seat and, according to the final certifications, Webster won the election by 886 votes. Webster received 3, 255 votes, whereas Smith received 2, 369 votes. Of the total votes cast, 390 were cast by absentee ballot. Webster received 296 of the absentee ballots and Smith received the remaining 94.

         ¶3. After the election had been certified, Smith conducted statutory examinations of the ballot boxes pursuant to Mississippi Code Section 23-15-911(1).[1] During the examinations, Smith requested to photocopy or scan the contents of the ballot boxes. The Coahoma, Quitman, and Tunica County circuit clerks denied these requests.

         ¶4. On November 24, 2014, Smith filed a petition in the Quitman County Circuit Court seeking both declaratory relief and to contest the election.[2] Smith sought declaratory relief as to whether a candidate "has a legal right to make photocopies of election documents prior to filing an election contest" during a ballot-box examination under Section 23-15-911(1). Smith further alleged that this Court's order adopting the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure created unconstitutional power-sharing between the judicial and legislative branches.

         ¶5. Smith also contested the election, alleging violations of elections laws and procedures by election officials during the November 4 election. One of the violations alleged by Smith was that most of the absentee ballot applications and envelopes were in violation of statutory provisions and were commingled to the extent that illegal absentee ballots could not be separated from legal absentee ballots. Webster filed his answer and affirmative defenses, and Special Circuit Judge M. James Chaney Jr. was designated to hear the contest.

         ¶6. On January 22, 2015, pursuant to Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 34, Smith filed a motion for authority to examine, inspect, and photocopy the contents of ballot boxes used in the subdistrict 11-3 election. Judge Chaney held a hearing and ultimately denied the motion. The special judge concluded that Section 23-15-911(1) does not allow making copies of the ballot-box contents. Further, Judge Chaney stated that Rule 81 limits the application of the Rules of Civil Procedure in election contests and that, even if the rules did apply, Rule 34 had no application to Smith's request.[3]

         ¶7. At the hearing, however, Judge Chaney gave Smith fifteen days to submit a list of specific documents from the ballot boxes that she wanted to copy. The trial judge reiterated that only documents pertaining to specific voters should be requested. The special judge also allowed Webster to file objections to Smith's list. Smith submitted her list of documents, Webster filed his objections, and the trial judge held another hearing on the matter.

         ¶8. Brenda Wiggs, circuit clerk of Quitman County, and Charles Oaks, circuit clerk of Coahoma County, testified at the hearing. Wiggs and Oaks testified that the vast majority of documents requested by Smith were either: (1) not located in the ballot boxes or (2) not applicable because their counties used direct-recording electronic voting equipment.[4] Many of Smith's requests asked for documents applicable only in elections using optical mark reading equipment.[5] After hearing arguments, Judge Chaney sustained Webster's objections to the documents that were not located in the ballot box or that were inapplicable to the election. As to the items requested that were located in the ballot box, Judge Chaney determined that Smith's request did not comply with the specificity requirement that he previously had ordered. Smith's request sought "each" absentee ballot application and "each" absentee envelope rather than requesting the absentee ballots and envelopes of specific voters.

         ¶9. Later in the pretrial proceedings, Smith designated William Cooper and Talbot Brooks as "geocoding" experts.[6] In his declaration, Cooper claimed that his geocoding analysis revealed that 1, 385 registered voters in Coahoma and Quitman Counties were assigned to the wrong subdistrict.[7] Therefore, Smith alleged that nonresidents of subdistrict 11-3 were able to vote in the November 4 election, while many residents of the subdistrict were "left off of the pollbooks" and therefore unable to vote in the election. As shown in Smith's First Amended Petition, Smith asserted that 600 persons improperly cast their ballots in the election or were unable to vote in the election due to misassignment. On April 22, 2015, Webster filed a motion to disallow Smith's expert witnesses, arguing that the experts' findings were not relevant and/or not reliable.

         ¶10. The trial judge granted Webster's motion. Judge Chaney found that Brooks had provided no "investigation, report or opinion relevant to th[e] election contest."[8] The special judge also found that Cooper's geocoding analysis was based solely on Excel files he received from Smith.[9] No certification from the circuit clerks, however, was provided to indicate that Cooper relied upon accurate data or maps in calculating his results. Therefore, Judge Chaney determined that Cooper's findings were not reliable.

         ¶11. On August 28, 2015, Webster filed a combined motion for summary judgment and memorandum of authorities. For purposes of summary judgment, Webster accepted as true Smith's assertion that 600 combined voters in Coahoma and Quitman Counties illegally voted in the election or were unable to vote in the election due to misassignment. Further, Webster also accepted as true that all 390 absentee ballots were invalid. Smith responded with a motion for partial summary judgment, a motion for declaratory judgment, a motion for reconsideration, and a response to Webster's motion for summary judgment. The trial judge held a hearing and ultimately granted Webster's motion for summary judgement.

         ¶12. The trial judge found that, even if he were to take Smith's assertions as true, Webster still would win the election. By subtracting 296 absentee votes from Webster, Webster would have had 2, 959 votes. By subtracting 94 absentee votes from Smith, Smith would have had 2, 275 votes. Thus, the difference between Smith and Webster without the absentee votes would have been 684 votes. Even assuming 600 persons unlawfully voted in the election or were unable to vote in the election and that all 600 would have voted for Smith, the special judge concluded that Webster still would have won by 84 votes.

         ¶13. The special judge also resolved Smith's request for declaratory judgment, finding that this Court already has determined that the judicial review process of election contests does not create a separation of powers issue. Lastly, in his order granting summary judgment, the special judge dismissed all other outstanding motions as moot. On October 16, 2015, Smith appealed. Smith raises six issues, recited verbatim as follows:

1. The Standard of Review For a Trial Court's Denial of Discovery Rights, the Exclusion of Expert Testimony and the Grant of Summary Judgment
2.Whether A Candidate For Public Office Has The Right To Make And Obtain Photocopies And/or Scan Of Election Materials and Documents Used To Conduct An Election Within The Twelve (12) Day Period Under Miss. Code Ann. 23-15-911 (1972)?
3.Whether The Provisions Of The Mississippi Supreme Court May 26, 1981 Order Adopting Rule 81(a)(4) But Leaving In Place Procedural Statutes Constitute Power Sharing In Violation Of The Separation of Powers Doctrine Or, Alternatively Determining That The Trial Court Committed An Abuse Of Discretion By Denying Smith's Discovery Rights Under The MRCP?
4.Whether The Trial Court's Exclusion of Smith's Experts By Order Filed May 20, 2015 Was An Abuse Of Discretion?
5. Whether The Trial Court Committed Reversible Error By Granting Summary Judgment To Webster In The Presence Of Genuine Issues Of Material Fact?
6.Whether The Trial Judge Abused Its Discretion By Not Ruling On Smith's Rule 54(b) Motion For Reconsideration?


         I. The Standard of Review for a Trial Court's Denial of Discovery Rights, the Exclusion of Expert ...

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