On Feb. 7, the Mississippi State House approved House Bill 1020, a bill that would create a new, unelected court system in the state capital of Jackson. The bill now heads to the state Senate where it will likely pass. The proposal has generated a storm of controversy and demonstrates the decades-long efforts to undermine minority representation in the state. Unfortunately, the proposed court system is just the tip of the iceberg in a state that continues to gerrymander its election maps, propose reinstating discriminatory electoral rules and disenfranchise a large portion of its adult population.
Mississippi Republicans want to create a court that is unaccountable to Black voters.
H.B. 1020 focuses on the Capitol Complex Improvement District (CCID), a special district in Jackson centered around the state capitol building with its own police force. The bill would expand the size of the district and create a completely new court system to hear civil and criminal cases that occur in the CCID. Currently, cases from the district are heard by courts in Hinds County, the county in which Jackson is located.
But unlike the Hinds County courts, the judges and prosecutors of the CCID’s courts would be appointed rather than elected — the judges appointed by the chief justice of the state Supreme Court and the prosecutors appointed by the state attorney general. Jackson is 80% Black, one of the highest proportions of Black citizens in the country, yet under this proposal, the judges and prosecutors that oversee a substantial portion of the city would be appointed entirely by white officials. Indeed, no Black person has held statewide office in Mississippi since Reconstruction. Given the extremely high levels of racially polarized voting in the state, H.B. 1020 quite literally takes political power from Jackson residents and places it in the hands of officials who are exceedingly unlikely to ever win Black voters’ support.
It’s this aspect of H.B. 1020 that has drawn the most objections, and Black legislators vociferously objected to the bill during floor debate. Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba (D) called the bill “some of the most oppressive legislation that we have seen in our city’s history. It’s oppressive because it strips the rights of Black people to vote.” In a statement to Democracy Docket, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Mississippi policy director decried how the “state legislature is trying to replace elected judges and prosecutors in a majority Black community with ones chosen by politicians. They want to deny Black Mississippians fair representation on the bench and appoint judges that serve the interests of politicians instead of answering to the community.”
H.B. 1020 is just one of the bills moving through the Legislature that pits the population of Jackson against the white, Republican-controlled Legislature. Also advancing through the legislative process, over the objections of Jackson’s representatives, are proposals changing Jackson’s water system, mandating how it can spend sales tax revenue and clarifying the powers of elected municipal officials. Time and again, white politicians are trying to override the preferences of the state’s capital city.
H.B. 1020 is just the latest in a long line of measures designed to reduce Black political power.
While H.B. 1020 is a particularly egregious example of political power being taken from Black Mississippians, it’s certainly not the first. After all, Mississippi was the state that pioneered the Black Codes, which restricted the rights of Black Americans in the aftermath of the Civil War. Some of the tactics and provisions utilized over the years to restrict Black political representation continued past the Civil Rights Movement and continue or continued to exist in the 21st century.
Up until 2021, Mississippi employed a version of the Electoral College to elect statewide officials. Under this system, candidates for statewide offices had to win both a majority of the popular vote and a majority of state House districts. If no candidate met this benchmark, then the state House picked between the two candidates with the most votes. In a 2019 lawsuit challenging the state’s electoral rules, the plaintiffs noted that the rules were adopted after the end of Reconstruction as one of a series of constitutional provisions adopted to exclude Black Mississippians from politics. While eliminating this electoral college system was a step forward for Mississippians, the state is poised to take a step backward with a proposal to institute runoff elections for all state officials. Runoff elections were historically used in the South to ensure candidates supported by the Black electorate could never defeat the candidate supported by the white electorate. Mississippi already uses runoffs for primary elections and could soon extend this exclusionary tool to general elections as well.
Black Mississippians also face barriers in electing their choice of political representatives due to a long history of gerrymandering. Prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, Mississippi was one of the states with a history of racially discriminatory voting practices that was required by the Voting Rights Act (VRA) to get approval from the U.S. Department of Justice or a federal court before implementing new election maps. For example, under this system of preclearance, every single congressional election in Mississippi in the 2000s and 2010s was held under a court-drawn map. But after Shelby County, Mississippi no longer needs to get this permission. Yet the state seems to continue to draw political maps that disadvantage Black voters. The plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the state’s new state House and Senate districts allege that the maps violate both the VRA and the U.S. Constitution.
Finally, Mississippi is also home to one of the most restrictive felony disenfranchisement laws in the country. The provision dates from the same 1890 state constitution that created the state’s electoral college system and instituted a myriad of other racially discriminatory measures for the purpose of “exclud[ing] the Negro.” As a result of this law, as of 2020 nearly 11% of Mississippi’s voting age population is unable to participate in the political process — 16% of the Black voting age population. Despite the law’s effects and racially discriminatory intent, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declined to overturn it.
The drama in the Magnolia State underscores the fight for equal representation is far from over.
America prides itself on the history of its democracy, but our democratic system is not as old as it might seem. Black Americans only secured the right to vote with the passage of the VRA in 1965 — less than sixty years ago — and in many ways our democracy is still a work in progress. As the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) said, “Democracy is not a state. It is an act.” It’s not enough to rest on the accomplishments of previous generations; we must continue to work to ensure equal representation. Part of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County overturning preclearance was predicated on Chief Justice John Robert’s assertion that “things have changed dramatically.” The controversy over H.B. 1020 in Mississippi shows that things actually haven’t changed as much as we may wish.