The Mississippi Legislature’s attempt to create four unelected special circuit court judges in Hinds County is unconstitutional, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled today, while upholding House Bill 1020’s creation of a single inferior court in Jackson’s Capitol Complex Improvement District. Justices heard arguments in the case in July.
In an 8-0 decision, the justices agreed with resident plaintiffs Ann Saunders, Sabvreen Sharriff and Dorothy Triplett’s argument that H.B. 1020 “Section 1’s creation of four new appointed ‘temporary special circuit judges’ in the Seventh Circuit Court District for a specified, almost-four-year term violates our Constitition’s requirement that circuit judges be elected for a four-year term.”
“While Section 1 calls these new judges ‘special circuit judges’ on paper, we see nothing special or unique about them—certainly nothing expressly tethering them to a specific judicial need or exigency,” says the ruling, which reversed a lower court decision. “Rather, Section 1’s text merely creates four unelected circuit court judgeships, appointed into Hinds County to serve three-and-a-half years instead of four.” Justice James D. Maxwell II wrote for the majority.
If H.B. 1020 had been fully upheld, Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael K. Randolph, who is white and recused himself from the case, would have appointed four unelected circuit court judges in Hinds County, which is more than 70% Black. Opponents said doing so would have diminished the majority-Black population’s ability to select their own judges.
But despite finding H.B. 1020’s required appointments unconstitutional, today’s opinion emphasizes that “there is no constitutional impediment to the Chief Justice temporarily appointing special judges to assist the Seventh Circuit District Court—or any other judicial district in Mississippi facing exigent circumstances.” The chief justice, the court added, has the authority to appoint temporary special judges to address “emergencies or overcrowded dockets,” noting that the same authority has been routinely used in the past.
Justice James W. Kitchens dissented in part, disagreeing with the decision to uphold the CCID inferior court, writing that it was based upon a “fiction of convenience that overreaches our judicial function and, of ultimate importance, our constitutional duty.” Justice Leslie D. King joined the dissent.