Mississippi House OKs court with unelected judges in Jackson

Published 7:00 am Wednesday, February 8, 2023

The Republican-controlled Mississippi House on Tuesday passed a bill to create a new court district in part of the capital city of Jackson with judges who would be appointed rather than elected.

Black Democrats pushed back vociferously against House Bill 1020 during a nearly five-hour debate, arguing the measure unconstitutionally strips voting rights from many residents in the majority-Black city.

“Don’t create a city within the city,” Democratic Rep. Bryant Clark of Pickens implored the House.

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House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Tray Lamar, a Republican from Senatobia, sponsored the bill. He told the House that a new court system would help deal with a backlog of criminal cases, including a large number of homicides.

“Jackson is the capital city,” Lamar said. “It belongs to all Mississippi.”

The bill passed 76-38, largely along party lines. It was held for the possibility of more debate in the next several days, but opponents are unlikely to be able block it from eventually moving to the Senate for more work.

The bill would expand the boundaries of the existing Capitol Complex Improvement District, which is patrolled by Capitol Police officers who work for the state Department of Public Safety. The district also receives some tax money for street repairs.

The district currently encompasses parts of Jackson that have state government buildings, including much of downtown and the University of Mississippi Medical Center. The proposed expansion includes busy shopping and entertainment areas along Interstate 55 in north Jackson.

If people are charged with felony crimes within the current boundaries of the district, those cases are currently handled in Hinds County Circuit Court. The bill would establish a separate court system with two judges appointed by the chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court.

The appointed judges would not be required to live in Jackson or Hinds County.

“I believe the chief justice should have the authority to appoint quality, experienced legal minds,” Lamar said, adding in response to questions, “The best person for that job may very well come from Hinds County” or from another part of the state.

The Mississippi attorney general would appoint prosecutors to handle criminal cases in the new court district.

Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, a Democrat who opposes the bill, watched the debate from one of the House galleries.

Democratic Rep. Chris Bell of Jackson said during the debate that Lamar and other bill supporters had not asked Jackson lawmakers for their input on the proposal, as would normally be done. Bell said legislators should not try to change a community without having input from people living there.

“We are not incompetent. Our judges are not incompetent. Our mayor is not incompetent,” Bell said.

More than 80% of Jackson residents are Black and about 25% of residents live in poverty.

Democratic Rep. Zakiya Summers of Jackson said the proposed district would include predominantly white areas of the city. Summers, who represents a majority-Black House district that would be partially inside the Capitol Complex district, said her constituents don’t want a new court system with appointed judges.

Democratic Rep. Ronnie Crudup Jr. of Jackson said the expanded Capitol Complex district would encompass the city’s more affluent areas.

Lamar said he did not know about land values, noting that about 53% of residents in the proposed district are Black.