White Mississippi Officials Would Appoint Courts, Bypassing Black Jackson Judges Under Bill

Mississippi House Ways and Means Committee Chair Trey Lamar
Mississippi House Rep. Trey Lamar, R-Senatobia, is sponsoring a bill to establish a court system with unelected judges and prosecutors to oversee Jackson’s Capitol district. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

JACKSON, Miss.—Unelected judges and prosecutors could soon run a new court system to oversee an expanded Capitol district in Mississippi’s capital city, if a new bill now in the Legislature becomes law. The bill’s critics warn that it could diminish Black political power in Mississippi’s 82% Black capital city, where voters routinely elect Black judges.

Under House Bill 1020, the Mississippi Supreme Court chief justice would appoint two judges, and the Mississippi attorney general would appoint four prosecutors to oversee the district. White officials currently hold both positions, and no Black Mississippian has ever held either of them. The bill would also give the new courts jurisdiction over lawsuits in which the State is a named party.

Mississippi House Rep. Trey Lamar, R-Senatobia, sponsored the bill, which says it is “an act to create inferior courts in the Capitol Complex Improvement District (CCID) to hear all matters occurring or accruing in the boundaries of the Capitol Complex Improvement District.”

The Mississippi Legislature created the Capitol Complex Improvement District in 2017 to fund infrastructure projects surrounding the Capitol Building using portions of the sales tax the State collects from the business activities in the capital city.

The House Ways and Means Committee passed an amended copy of H.B. 1020, which spans more than 1,000 pages, on Wednesday; it will next go to the House floor for a vote.

Lamar, a North Mississippi legislator and chairman of the committee, told the Mississippi Free Press Thursday that his goal for the bill is “to help bring more people to Jackson.”

“If people feel safe in Jackson, more people will come to Jackson. So that’s all that’s about,” he said.

Mississippi House Rep. Zakiya Summers, D-Jackson is unconvinced that the bill would address public-safety concerns. “Of course, we want the citizens of the city of Jackson to be safe. Who doesn’t want that? But there are ways to go about that, and this is not the way to do it,” she told the Mississippi Free Press yesterday.

Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike Randolph, Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch and Mississippi Public Safety Commissioner Sean Tindell
If H.B. 1020 became law, Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike Randolph (left) would appoint two judges to Jackson’s Capitol district courts and Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch (center) would appoint four prosecutors to oversee the district. Mississippi Public Safety Commissioner Sean Tindell, right, oversees Capitol Police and could be in charge of a force with expanded jurisdiction. Photos courtesy Mike Randolph, Lynn Fitch, Sean Tindell

In 2021, the Legislature expanded the State government’s oversight in Jackson with House Bill 974, transferring authority over the Capitol Police, which used to guard State buildings, to the Department of Public Safety. That legislation transformed the Capitol Police into a conventional police force that covers the CCID’s 8.7 square miles.

“The Capitol district extends from Jackson State University, all the way to I-55 and up into the Fondren area, or just past the University of Mississippi Medical Center,” Mississippi Public Safety Commissioner Sean Tindell said during a press conference last July.

H.B. 1020 would create a court system with jurisdiction over criminal and civil matters and shared jurisdiction with the Hinds County Justice Court in others. In some cases, the new inferior courts would take over from the justice court.

“It shall have jurisdiction concurrent with the circuit and chancery courts in all matters of law and equity” for controversy over issues with a dispute of up to $20 million, the bill says. “It shall exclusively have the jurisdiction heretofore exercised by the justice court in the following matters and causes: namely, eminent domain, the partition of personal property, and actions of unlawful entry and detainer, provided that the actions of eminent domain and unlawful entry and detainer may be returnable and triable before the judge of said court in vacation for actions that occur or accrue within the boundaries of the CCID.”

Capitol Courts Would Hear State Cases, Not Hinds Judges

Lamar’s bill would also grant the inferior courts jurisdiction over cases in which the state government is a party.

“Wherever there is a reference in any law, rule, regulation or document for any action filed against the State of Mississippi, or a board or commission of the state or a state agency; or an appeal from a decision of a board or commission of the state or a state agency to any circuit or chancery court in Hinds County, the same shall be construed to mean the inferior courts of the Capitol Complex Improvement District as created by this act,” the bill says.

Representative Bubba Lester Carpenter
At a Tishomingo County Republican meeting in 2015 during an education-funding initiative campaign, North Mississippi Rep. Lester “Bubba” Carpenter, R-Burnsville, warned that “a Black judge” would “tell us where the state education money goes” because Hinds County judges have jurisdiction over cases in which the State is named as a party. Photo courtesy Mississippi Legislature

“The CCID courts shall have exclusive jurisdiction over all actions filed on or after January 1, 2024, in which the State of Mississippi is a named party to the action.”

At a Tishomingo County Republican meeting in 2015, Rep. Lester “Bubba” Carpenter, R-Burnsville, made his disdain for the fact that elected Hinds County judges rule on cases involving the State clear. He said that if voters passed Initiative 42, which would have required lawmakers to follow state law and fully fund education under the Mississippi Adequate Education Program standards, that could have triggered a court case in which a Black judge would decide where public-school funds go.

“If 42 passes in its form, a judge in Hinds County, Mississippi, predominantly Black—it’s going to be a Black judge—they’re going to tell us where the state education money goes,” Carpenter said. He later apologized for the remark, and Initiative 42 narrowly failed at the ballot box.

Lamar told the Mississippi Free Press Thursday that he is aware of some objections to the bill, but said he wants to act within the confines of the Mississippi Constitution and that the legislation would give the Mississippi Supreme Court the right to appoint special judges.

Capitol Complex Improvement District boundary map
“The Capitol district extends from Jackson State University, all the way to I-55 and up into the Fondren area, or just past the University of Mississippi Medical Center,.” Mississippi Department of Public Safety Commissioner Sean Tindell explained in July 2022. A January 2023 bill could expand the district beyond the current boundaries, which are pictured here. Map courtesy MSDFA

“Any time you make changes to something, there’s going to be a lot of questions, but we’ll make sure that what we do is in compliance with the Mississippi Constitution,” the attorney and former law clerk for Gov. Haley Barbour said. “I’ve heard a lot more people in favor of it than complaints.”

“Circuit judges are elected, chancery judges are elected, but special judges are appointed by the State Supreme Court, and that’s happening, that happens all the time; we’ve got specially appointed judges in Hinds County today already,” Lamar added. “I think the Legislature seeks to help the judicial system here in Hinds County and specifically in the capital city—so this will basically free up those judges to concentrate on their criminal and other civil dockets.”

Last year, the Legislature used federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to pay for three temporary circuit-court judges and several temporary district attorneys in Hinds County.

ACLU: Bill ‘Recalls The State’s Jim Crow Past’

The American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi opposes H.B. 1020. In a statement Thursday, the organization said the legislation could not withstand constitutional scrutiny if it became law and called it “an undemocratic court system that recalls the state’s Jim Crow past through this bill.”

When the Mississippi Free Press told Lamar the ACLU compared the bill to Mississippi’s white supremacist past,  he said, “Somebody would have to tell me how they think that’s going to happen,” while insisting that special judges’ appointments “happen all the time.”

ACLU Mississippi Communications and Advocacy Director Candace Coleman
The American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi called House Bill 1020 “an undemocratic court system that recalls the state’s Jim Crow past through this bill,” in a press statement ACLU Communications Director Candace Coleman (pictured) released on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023. Photo courtesy ACLU Mississippi

In its press statement, the ACLU characterized H.B. 1020 as a “legislative scheme that creates a new Judicial District within the City of Jackson, taking voting and political power away from the majority Black citizens.”

“We believe the Legislature is exceeding this power and violating Section 156 of the State Constitution, which gives the circuit court ‘original jurisdiction in all matters civil and criminal not vested by this Constitution in some other court,” the ACLU added.

The ACLU also argued that the bill “strips away power from the democratically elected Hinds County District Attorney and allows appointed prosecutors to try misdemeanor and felony offenses based on affidavits from the Capitol Police Chief.”

“Jackson would be the only community in the state where unelected judges and prosecutors have jurisdiction over criminal and civil law matters,” the statement said. “While Section 172 of the State Constitution grants the Legislature the authority to create ‘inferior’ courts, the judicial system envisioned in HB 1020 would be inferior in name only.”

Lamar disagreed with the claim that the bill would strip power from Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens, a Black Democratic elected official whose jurisdiction includes Jackson.

“We’re not taking anything away from Jody, who’ll still be able to prosecute all like he normally does in Hinds County,” Lamar said. “This would just be an additional way that Capitol Police can bring prosecutions and indictments in the CCID court.”

Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens
Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens, a Democrat, is the county’s elected prosecutor. The ACLU of Mississippi says that House Bill 1020 would “strip” away his power in the Capitol district, which Rep. Trey Lamar denies. Photo by Kayode Crown

University of Mississippi School of Law MacArthur Justice Center Director Cliff Johnson told the Mississippi Free Press Thursday that a groundswell of organizations are ready to take the State to task over the bill if it becomes law.

“There is a wide range of collaborative partners who are working feverishly on this, including the Mississippi Center for Justice, the ACLU of Mississippi, the People’s Advocacy Institute and other grassroots community organizations,” he said. “The members of the Magnolia Bar Association have expressed concern.

“People have been shocked by this effort, and there will be a broad-based response from across sections of the community that will include both political and legal reactions that we believe will have real consequences for those who support this legislation,” he added.

Johnson said the inferior courts will disempower those who usually elect their judges and prosecutors in the capital city.

“But the fact of the matter remains that this legislation would give substantial power over the city of Jackson to Chief Justice Mike Randolph, Attorney General Lynn Fitch, and Sean Tindell, the head of the Department of Public Safety, all white people,” he said. Under the bill, State Public Defender André de Gruy would appoint four public defenders to the court.

“Since the expansion of the Capitol Police several months ago, we’ve all seen the aggressive policing undertaken by the Capitol police, including the shooting of several Jackson residents. And now we see Republican efforts to expand the jurisdiction of that police, of that State police force and to create an entirely new court with jurisdiction over that large part of Jackson, over that large area of Jackson.”

Headshot of University of Mississippi MacAuthur Justice Center Director Cliff Johnson in black suit and blue tie
“I fear that white Jacksonians and leaders in Mississippi are troubled by the idea of submitting to Black leadership,” University of Mississippi School of Law MacArthur Justice Center Director Cliff Johnson said on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023. Photo courtesy Cliff Johnson

Johnson said the latest developments with the CCID will create another capital within Jackson. “Rome has the Vatican, and now the city of Jackson, potentially, will have the CCID,” he said.

“From the time I learned of the plans to use the Capitol Complex Improvement District to take power away from elected Jackson officials, I have seen this as a white secession effort,” he added. “I fear that white Jacksonians and leaders in Mississippi are troubled by the idea of submitting to Black leadership and have undertaken to seize power and implement a system of self-governance.”

Jackson Delegation Opposes Bill

Rep. Zakiya Summers told the Mississippi Free Press yesterday that the bill is a concern for the Jackson delegates in the House, who have been meeting to strategize on how to stop it from becoming law.

Summers said she is working with fellow lawmakers to “kill the bill” and show the other members of the Legislature “that this is not the way to go.”

Mississippi State Rep. Zakiya Summers speaking
Mississippi Rep. Zakiya Summers, D-Jackson, said House Bill 1020 is “on its face unconstitutional.” Photo by Kayode Crown

The “Jackson-Hinds County delegation has met,” Summers said, and they “talked with other organizations that can help us.”

“So we’re working with folks outside the Capitol, (to) help us just digest and understand everything that’s in this bill.”

“We’re also working with the Democratic caucus in the House, and we’ll be working with the Democratic caucus on the Senate side, too, if it should pass the House and move to the Senate,” she added.

Summer said the proposal would “remove one-man, one-vote, and remove the ability of those individuals to be able to elect those judges and their prosecutors as the Constitution allows.”

“It would be allowed to hear Circuit Court matters, Chancery Court matters, any matter where the State is a party, in that case, would also go to this court,” she said.

She said the committee substitution adds “the City of Ridgeland into the CCID boundary, and it diverts sales tax that could be used in areas outside of the City of Jackson.”

“My understanding, this was before my time, but my understanding is that the Capitol Complex Improvement District, the intent of it was to provide infrastructure support to that particular area in the City of Jackson,” Summers said. “This bill is taking that initial intent and making it into a police state, so not only are they going to be overpoliced with now three separate law enforcement agencies, but they would also have to adhere to a totally separate judicial system that they can’t have any direct accountability to.”

The committee’s amendments to the bill changed the boundaries of the Capitol Complex Improvement District to include “the part of the City of Ridgeland, Mississippi, that surrounds the State Capitol Building” in addition to the part of the City of Jackson that surrounds the Capitol Complex Improvement District. As of the 2020 Census, Ridgeland had a slight white majority population.

When asked about the change in the adopted amendment, Lamar denied that the bill adds Ridgeland to the Capitol Improvement District. “We did expand the boundaries, but it stays within the city of Jackson,” he said.

The bill will require three-fifths of the votes of the Mississippi House of Representatives to be passed and transmitted to the Mississippi Senate.

Can you support the Mississippi Free Press?

The Mississippi Free Press is a nonprofit, nonpartisan 501(c)(3) focused on telling stories that center all Mississippians.

With your gift, we can do even more important stories like this one. 

Comments