JACKSON, Miss.—Controversial legislation to establish a new court system in Hinds County with unelected judges and prosecutors in an expanded Capitol Complex Improvement District has now morphed into an effort to expand the jurisdiction of the State-run Capitol Police over the entire capital city. It also commands that the City of Jackson sign an agreement allowing them expanded jurisdiction after weeks of controversy over proposed legislation to allow the State to take more control of the majority-Black capital city.
Mississippi Senate Judiciary A Committee passed the new version of House Bill 1020 that imports the language of Senate Bill 2343, which would grant the Capitol Police jurisdiction over all of Jackson, concurrent with the jurisdiction of the Jackson Police Department and Hinds County sheriff, rather than just the whitest part of town as was first proposed. The primary area would still be the Capitol Complex Improvement District. The legislation demands that Mississippi Commissioner for Public Safety Sean Tindell and the City of Jackson must agree to a memorandum of understanding by July 1.
The legislation contains the caveat that in “the event the memorandum is not executed, any dispute related to the law enforcement function of the Office of the Capitol Police within the boundaries of the City of Jackson, Mississippi, shall be resolved in favor of the Commissioner of the Department of Public Safety.”
Lumumba: Attempt to Avoid Legal Challenge
Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba confirmed to the Mississippi Free Press tonight that he will not sign that MOU. “The legislation is still an attack on Black leadership in every form,” he said. “It is still fraught with constitutional issues. What it suggests is that the latest form of the legislation is an attempt to avoid a legal challenge to the legislation. And instead the bill suggests that it is a binding agreement as opposed to unconstitutional legislation. If there was a genuine belief that this was constitutionally sound then it wouldn’t be attempting to force a legal document that Jackson has to sign.”
The mayor added that the legislators seem to be planning to do it anyway, so why would they need him to sign an MOU. He said legislators supporting the bill are likely trying to find their way around constitutional issues, and the legal challenges they know are coming.
The new version neither establishes a new court system nor expands the Capitol Complex Improvement District as originally planned. It would provide for five “temporary special circuit judges,” which the chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court would appoint.
This new arrangement would last until 2026. From 2027 there would be one more elected Hinds County District Court, increasing the number to five.
The latest development followed outcries from inside Jackson and community members that the previous version will grant white Mississippians the power to appoint unelected judges and prosecutors over an expanded Capitol Complex Improvement District that primarily serves the part of Jackson with the most white people—in a capital city with 85% Black population.
Wiggins: Just Trying to Help
Senate Judiciary Division A Chairman Brice Wiggins said that his amendment strikes out the whole of the previous bill and replaces it with a new language, codifying the assistance the Legislature has provided the judicial system in Hinds County in the last two years until 2026.
“The Senate for the last two years have funded prosecutors and judges to help the city of Jackson,” he said. “The effect of the strike-all is we are codifying what we have been doing as a state Legislature for the last two years.”
“I personally have spoken to the district attorney for Hinds County, who I will say I think is doing a good job,” he added. “I have numbers, I have data from them. And what has been shared with me is that with the assistance that has come forward from the State to this point, the caseloads and the criminal cases in particular, are being addressed, and it’s working.”
Wiggins served as an assistant district attorney on the Gulf Coast for several years being joining the Legislation. He was the author of several failed attempts to pass anti-gang legislation in Mississippi, which detractors said went too far and would be ineffective against violence.
After this story published, Wiggins responded in a series of tweets to what he called “the absurdity of the mayor’s position.”
“It’s beyond me how the mayor of the state’s largest city, who himself asked for help from the #msleg, can sit by and refuse to act,” the senator tweeted. “The language referenced only applies if the city refuses, otherwise it contemplates the city and JPD working together. It’s the mayor who is refusing to cooperate thus putting his constituents in harm’s way. And no legal basis exists for his claims of ‘avoiding lawsuits.'”
More Prosecutors Included
The new H.B. 1020 provides for five temporary special circuit judges in Hinds County, with two of them hearing only criminal matters, while the rest will hear both criminal and civil matters. It authorizes the Hinds County attorney, a separate position to the district attorney, to appoint two temporary assistant county attorneys funded by the Legislature until 2026.
While those judges and assistant county attorneys are temporary, if the bill becomes law, it would provide additional assistant district attorneys and public defenders for Hinds County, taking the number from 11 to 14 each.
The salary of the assistant district attorneys would continue to come from the Legislature, but the Legislature would pick up the tab for the salary of the three additional assistant public defenders. Their colleagues receive payment from Hinds County.
“The State will be funding the public defenders,” Wiggins said in his explanation of the bill, which now proceeds to the Senate floor for debate.
Additional reporting by Donna Ladd.
This story has been updated to include comments from Sen. Brice Wiggins.