McDaniel v. Cochran

Decision Date24 October 2014
Docket NumberNo. 2014–EC–01247–SCT.,2014–EC–01247–SCT.
Citation158 So.3d 992
PartiesChris McDANIEL v. Thad COCHRAN.
CourtMississippi Supreme Court

Mitchell Harry Tyner, Sr., Steve C. Thornton, Jackson, attorneys for appellant.

Phil B. Abernethy, Mark W. Garriga, Leann W. Nealey, Ridgeland, Lem Montgomery, attorneys for appellee.

EN BANC.

Opinion

KING, Justice, for the Court:

¶ 1. On June 24, 2014, Thad Cochran, a Republican nominee for United States Senator, won the Republican primary runoff. Chris McDaniel, his opponent, filed an election contest with the State Republican Executive Committee (SREC) on August 4, 2014—forty-one days after the election. The SREC declined to consider McDaniel's complaint, and McDaniel sought judicial review. Relying on Kellum v. Johnson, 237 Miss. 580, 115 So.2d 147 (1959), the trial judge found that McDaniel did not meet the twenty-day deadline to file his election contest and dismissed the case. On appeal, McDaniel argues that no deadline exists to contest a primary election.

Under the doctrine of stare decisis, we find that Kellum applies, McDaniel failed to file his election contest within twenty days, and the dismissal is affirmed.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

¶ 2. On Tuesday, June 3, 2014, the Mississippi Republican Party held its primary election for the office of United States Senator. McDaniel received the highest number of votes and Cochran finished second. Because neither received a majority of the votes cast, a runoff was held three weeks later on Tuesday, June 24, 2014.

¶ 3. The returns were canvassed, the results declared, and Cochran was announced as the winner and Republican nominee for United States Senator. On July 7, 2014, the SREC certified the election results to the Mississippi Secretary of State. The SREC also amended its certification on July 10, 2014.

¶ 4. McDaniel sought to examine the ballot boxes for multiple counties and, on July 3, 2014, gave the required three-days' notice. Over twenty-eight days, McDaniel examined election records across the State. McDaniel alleged that several circuit court clerks precluded him from viewing original election records, impeding his examination.

¶ 5. Pursuant to Mississippi Code Section 23–15–923, McDaniel filed his election-contest complaint with the SREC on August 4, 2014, forty-one days after the primary runoff election. McDaniel alleged that the integrity of the June 24 primary was comprised because “Democrat voters were allowed to cast illegal and fraudulent ballots” and a large number of [i]llegal votes by absentee ballot were likewise included in the final count[.] Thereafter, McDaniel supplemented his complaint twice—on August 6, 2014, and on August 12, 2014–to add election code violations. On August 6, 2014, the SREC informed McDaniel that, due to time constraints, it would not review his petition and encouraged him to seek judicial review. The SREC's letter also mentioned that Kellum “appear[ed] to impose a [twenty-]day time limit from the runoff to file a challenge[.]

¶ 6. McDaniel petitioned for judicial review on August 14, 2014. This Court appointed the Honorable Hollis McGehee to hear McDaniel's election contest. On August 21, 2014, Cochran moved to dismiss the petition based on Kellum, which held that a challenge to a district or statewide election must be initiated within twenty days of the election. McDaniel countered that the plain language of the statute did not provide a date by which an election contest must be filed. McDaniel also argued that Kellum was based on election laws since repealed by the Legislature and, hence, did not apply.

¶ 7. The trial court heard arguments on Cochran's motion to dismiss on August 28, 2014, and rendered a bench opinion on August 29, 2014. Thereafter, the trial court entered its final judgment on September 4, 2014. While Section 23–15–923 did not state when the complaint must be filed, the trial court determined that an analogous statute regarding a single county election—Mississippi Code Section 23–15–921 —established a twenty-day deadline. The trial court noted that Kellum analyzed predecessor statutes and, using principles of statutory construction, determined that the deadline also applied to a contest of a multicounty or statewide office. The trial court concluded that the substance of the predecessor statutes was essentially the same as current law and, thus, Kellum was applicable to the present case. Because McDaniel did not file his complaint within twenty days of the primary, the trial court dismissed the petition for judicial review with prejudice. McDaniel timely filed his notice of appeal on September 5, 2014. This Court expedited the appeal.

DISCUSSION

¶ 8. “In an election contest, the standard of review for questions of law is de novo.” Garner v. State Democratic Exec. Comm., 956 So.2d 906, 909 (Miss.2007) (citing Ladner v. Necaise, 771 So.2d 353, 355 (Miss.2000) ).

¶ 9. McDaniel's argument has three main points: (1) The express language of Section 23–15–923 is clear and unambiguous; the Legislature intended to remain silent regarding when a primary election contest must be filed. (2) Kellum, which found that a twenty-day deadline to contest the primary for a single county office also applied to a primary contest of a multi-county or statewide office, was decided wrongly and no longer has precedential value. (3) Barbour v. Gunn, 890 So.2d 843 (Miss.2004), which involved an election petition filed thirty-four days after the primary election, overruled Kellum.

I. Section 23–15–923 and Its Predecessors

¶ 10. McDaniel filed his complaint under Section 23–15–923, which concerns primary election contests for multi-county and statewide office:

[A] person desiring to contest the election of another returned as the nominee in state, congressional and judicial districts, and in legislative districts composed of more than one (1) county or parts of more than one (1) county, upon complaint filed with the Chairman of the State Executive Committee, by petition, reciting the grounds upon which the election is contested. If necessary and with the advice of four (4) members of said committee, the chairman shall issue his fiat to the chairman of the appropriate county executive committee, and in like manner as in the county office, the county committee shall investigate the complaint and return their findings to the chairman of the state committee. The State Executive Committee by majority vote of members present shall declare the true results of such primary.

Miss.Code Ann. § 23–15–923 (Rev. 2007). The statute does not mention when the complaint should be filed. In contrast, Section 23–15–921, which concerns a primary election contest involving a single-county, provides a twenty-day deadline:

[A] person desiring to contest the election of another person returned as the nominee of the party to any county or county district office, or as the nominee of a legislative district composed of one (1) county or less, may, within twenty (20) days after the primary election, file a petition with the secretary, or any member of the county executive committee in the county in which the election was held, setting forth the grounds upon which the primary election is contested; and it shall be the duty of the executive committee to assemble by call of the chairman or three (3) members of said committee, notice of which contest shall be served five (5) days before said meeting, and after notifying all parties concerned proceed to investigate the grounds upon which the election is contested and, by majority vote of members present, declare the true results of such primary.

Miss.Code Ann. § 23–15–921 (Rev. 2007) (emphasis added).

¶ 11. McDaniel asserts that Section 23–15–923 is clear and unambiguous, and the Court should apply the plain meaning of the statute. McDaniel cites City of Natchez v. Sullivan, 612 So.2d 1087 (Miss.1992), as support: [T]he omission of language from a similar provision on a similar subject indicates that the legislature had a different intent in enacting the provisions, which it manifested by the omission of the language.” City of Natchez, 612 So.2d at 1089. According to McDaniel, a primary election contest for a statewide office is more complicated than one for a single-county office and, thus, would require more time (an unpredictable amount of time) to resolve. For that reason, McDaniel claims it is conceivable that the Legislature purposefully declined to set forth a fixed deadline to contest a statewide primary election.

¶ 12. As comparison, McDaniel states that Mississippi Code Section 23–15–927 did not impose a deadline within which to file a petition for judicial review, only stating that it should be filed “forthwith.” Miss.Code Ann. § 23–15–927. In a previous case, the Court addressed the statute and found that it did not impose a fixed time limit and that “forthwith” was to be determined on a case-by-case basis. Pearson v. Parsons, 541 So.2d 447 (Miss.1989). Cochran points out, and the Court acknowledges, that Section 23–15–927 was amended in 2012 and now gives challengers ten days to file a petition for judicial review. See Miss.Code Ann. 23–15–927 (Supp.2014).

¶ 13. The Court notes that Section 23–15–923 does not even include language, like “forthwith,” to suggest that the election contest should be filed within a reasonable time. If a statute is plain and unambiguous, the Court will employ its plain meaning. Mississippi Methodist Hosp. and Rehab. Ctr., Inc. v. Miss. Div. of Medicaid, 21 So.3d 600, 607 (Miss.2009). The Court may, however, engage in statutory interpretation where a statute is ambiguous or silent on an issue. Id. The Court's goal is to determine the legislative intent. Id. “The best evidence of legislative intent is the text of the statute; the Court may also look to the statute's historical background, purpose, and objectives.” Id. (quoting In re Duckett, 991 So.2d 1165, 1181–82 (Miss.2008) ). A historical review of Sections 23–15–921 and 23–15–923 is helpful to this analysis.

¶ 14....

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