Lamar County, Mississippi calls itself “the second fastest growing county in the state,” which sets it up for big things.
In the county’s history, there has never been a female African-American judge at any level. In fact, there have never been any African-American judges — period. But that could change on Nov. 5 with the election of not one, but possibly two Justice Court judges. Dr. Dena Hurst Semmons is running in District 1 and Shronda Carter hopes to win in District 2. Semmons, who has never before run for public office, sees her campaign and possible election as change that’s been a long time coming, riding the crest of other successful southern campaigns fueled primarily by the efforts of a voting block of other African-American women.
Semmons, who resides in the progressive college town of Hattiesburg, hopes to beat the incumbent, Judge Bill Anderson, in this contest for a winning seat. In 2010, Anderson was suspended for 30 days and publicly reprimanded for judicial misconduct. Although these events unfolded nine years ago, memories can be long and tempers short in deep southern counties. Semmons believes that there’s still enough discontent over the misconduct of a 20-year sitting judge to power her campaign for change.
This race is significant because it is one of the first rungs of a ladder that leads from the community level to, perhaps, more significant positions within the judicial court system. Justice Court judges handle cases that may be smaller in scope than other courts but the cases may directly impact communities in a big way.
Semmons, who holds a doctorate in Educational Leadership and a Master’s Degree in Counseling, feels uniquely qualified to make decisions that will impact the lives of the citizens who will look to her for fairness and guidance. Justice Court judges hear civil cases of less than $3500, criminal misdemeanors, traffic violations and county evictions. These judges also issue domestic violence restraining orders and search warrants as well as hold sway over bail hearings.
These are issues that could end up being life or death for those without even the basic means to pay court fees and damages. Mississippi has a history of such cases where defendants involved in minor infractions are often funneled into the larger penal system pipeline – a system that disproportionately affects African-Americans. In a modern world, it’s a delicate balancing act of firmness and compassion for any judge on the bench.
Semmons and all the other African-American candidates hoping to be elected on Tuesday are all beneficiaries of one of the strongest Democratic machines that Mississippi has seen in years. With the heft of solid backing from an African-American female constituency throughout the state supporting races from Justice Court judges to attorney general hopeful, Jennifer Riley Collins and former Hattiesburg mayor, Johnny Dupree, running for secretary of state; Democrats are slowly chipping away against the challenges to electability in one of the country’s most hardcore red states.
In 2001, Semmons, moved to Hattiesburg after long stints in her original home of Chicago and later, the San Francisco Bay Area. She said many of her progressive California friends had raised eyebrows at her decision to move down to the Deep South, asking,” Why Mississippi of all places?”
Semmons explained that when she first arrived in the state, there were raging debates about displaying the confederate flag at the state house and other public buildings. Semmons said, “Wherever I looked there were ‘Save Our Flag’ signs.” While house-hunting in Hattiesburg, she and her husband, Thomas, decided to settle down, “when we didn’t see all those ‘Save Our Flag” signs here. Hattiesburg seemed to be a more progressive college town.”
Semmons, who has spent not only 15 years working in law enforcement as a correctional officer in the prison system and as an undercover narcotics officer, is also a performer and theater director with a national reputation. On top of all that, she had a catering business in California. But, as the election draws near, she feels progressive winds blowing in Mississippi.
Semmons believes that despite its low national quality of life rankings for medical care, employment and education “If Mississippi changes, the whole United States will change.”
On Nov. 5, Mississippi will have a chance to write a new, more inclusive narrative, creating momentum and a double-whammy history with Lamar County’s first African-American, female Justice Court judge.
Denise Korn is a freelance writer based in Atlanta. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.