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White-Appointed Capitol Courts in Jackson A Step Closer After Mississippi House Approval

Cliff Johnson, center, with the MacArthur Justice Center, voices his opposition to Mississippi House Bill 1020, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023, during a protest at the Mississippi Capitol in Jackson. The bill would create a separate court system in the Capitol Complex Improvement District in Jackson. Now the Legislature is backing away from the courts plan.
The Mississippi House of Representatives passed House Bill 1020 on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023, to create a court system over the Capitol Complex Improvement District in Jackson, Miss., with unelected judges and prosecutors handling cases in the district. Here, opponents of House bill 1020 protest on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023, with University of Mississippi MacArthur Justice Center Director Cliff Johnson speaking from behind a map of the Capitol Complex Improvement District. The Legislature is now backing away from that plan. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

JACKSON, Miss.—White Mississippi lawmakers moved closer Tuesday evening to creating a new system of unelected judges and prosecutors chosen by white officials to oversee a part of the majority-Black capital city.

Lawmakers debated House Bill 1020, which would create a new court system in an expanded Capitol Complex Improvement District, for five hours before representatives passed it in a 76-38 vote. Of the chamber’s white lawmakers, 74 voted for it and just two voted against it; among Black lawmakers, 36 voted against it and just two voted for it.

In remarks to the press at the Capitol after the vote Tuesday night, Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba described the bill as “oppressive” because it would take jurisdiction away from judges and the prosecutor elected by majority-Black Hinds County voters.

Under the bill, the Mississippi Supreme Court chief justice would appoint two judges to oversee cases in the district; the Mississippi attorney general would appoint four prosecutors; the state public defender would appoint public defenders; and the Mississippi Public Safety Commissioner would continue to have authority over a Capitol Police force over the expanded CCID.

White officials currently hold all four positions, and despite the fact that Mississippi has the nation’s largest proportion of Black residents at 38%, no Black official has held any of those positions. No Black Mississippian has held any statewide elected office since the brief period of Reconstruction after the Civil  War, which ended due to white terrorism to block Black voting power, which was called the First Mississippi Plan.

“What we just saw was some of the most oppressive legislation that we have seen in our city’s history,” Lumumba said. “It’s oppressive because it strips the rights of Black people to vote; it’s oppressive because it redirects their tax dollars to something that they don’t endorse or believe in.”

An earlier draft of H.B. 1020 exceeded 1,000 pages. Its sponsor, Rep. Trey Lamar, R-Senatobia, said on the House floor that he removed sections that would have required the special courts and unelected judges to hear appeals for cases in which the State of Mississippi is a named party. He cut it down to just 35 pages. Lamar estimated that the expanded CCID will have about a 53% Black population.

The House voted for an amendment Rep. Cheikh Taylor, D-Starkville, proposed to require Capitol Police to wear body cameras while on patrol.

“This (amendment) is about the protection of civilians and also police officers,” he said. “For those who are in favor of this bill, it does the bill no violence; for those opposed to this bill, it gives protection for the citizens who may be under duress from our officers, who may not be held accountable because there is no video footage of the account.”

Lamar explained that the Mississippi constitution permits the creation of such courts referred to as inferior courts and that his bill allows the new capitol courts’ prosecuting attorneys to file indictments in the Hinds County Circuit Court and for the Hinds County district attorney to file charges in the CCID court.

Cheikh Taylor, D-Starkville
On Feb. 8, 2023, Rep. Cheikh Taylor, D-Starkville, proposed and the Mississippi House passed an amendment to House Bill 1020 requiring Capitol Police to wear body cameras while on patrol. Photo MS House of Representatives

Lamar said the proposed court will have “concurrent jurisdiction with the justice court, chancery court, circuit court and county courts of Hinds County” with some limits. He said the “bill doubles the funding for the CCID from the current diversion of 6% of sales tax in the City of Jackson to 12%.”

‘Extreme Government Overreach’

Jackson leaders, residents and several civil rights groups have spoken out against the bill since House lawmakers passed it out of the Ways and Means Committee on Jan. 25.

Southern Poverty Law Center’ Mississippi State Office Director Waikinya Clanton said in a statement on Tuesday that the legislation “encourages” an “extreme imbalance of power.”

“This extreme government overreach is yet another attempt by self-interested leaders to dilute Black and Brown voices, proposing a profoundly serious threat to democracy and weakening the electoral power of all Mississippians,” she said. “The passage of HB 1020 targets the city of Jackson, infringing on the civil liberties of Jacksonians and opening the door for the Legislature to expand its government overreach into other municipalities as they so choose.”

A photo of a woman in a maroon jacket talking to someone over the right shoulder of the photographer
Southern Poverty Law Center Mississippi State Office Director Waikinya Clanton said in a Feb. 7, 2023, statement that H.B. 1020 represents “extreme government overreach.” Photo courtesy SPLC

But on the floor, Rep. Lamar said his goal with the legislation is to help Hinds County and the capital city.

“This bill is designed to help make our capital city of Mississippi a safer city,” he said. “This bill is designed to assist the court system of Hinds County, not to hinder it. It’s designed to add to our judicial resources in Hinds County, not to take away—to help and not hurt.”

The Jackson City Council, the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus, Hinds County judges, Jackson lawmakers from the Democratic Party have all released statements opposing the bill.

Jackson, MS City Hall exterior view
The Jackson City Council passed a resolution calling  House Bill 1020 an “unconstitutional” effort that  “would deprive the citizens of Jackson of their right to elect judges according to the Mississippi Constitution” Photo Jackson Free Press / Imani Khayyam

At a special Jackson City Council meeting on Feb. 3, the members unanimously approved a resolution opposing the bill, saying it contradicts “Article six, Section 153 of the Constitution of the State of Mississippi,” which “provides that the judges of the circuit and chancery courts shall be elected by the people and serve four-year terms.”

Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, spoke at the Feb. 3 City Council meeting, saying “this bill in particular is by far the worst because it strikes at the very constitutional rights of the people of Jackson, and by extension, the constitutional rights of every Mississippian to elect their judges as the Constitution requires.”

“This bill has not made its way through the process, and so it’s important that you do what you’ve done here today and take a strong stance against it,” the Jackson senator told the council members.

The Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus also condemned the bill in a statement on Feb. 2.

“The idea that local judicial power should be shifted from the voters of Hinds County is unjust and far too much like the separate but equal policies of the past,” the caucus said. “Our fellow lawmakers should focus their efforts on passing legislation to improve our capital city, the state and her people.”

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