WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Wednesday, July 12, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) sought permission to participate in a federal lawsuit challenging a set of recently enacted Mississippi laws. The lawsuit, which was filed in April by the NAACP and its local Mississippi chapters, brings claims against two anti-democratic laws, House Bill 1020 and Senate Bill 2343. Both laws target Jackson, Mississippi’s majority-Black population.
H.B. 1020 and S.B. 2343 overtly single out Jackson’s majority-Black population.
Enacted in February 2023, H.B. 1020 creates a new court system with an unelected judge in an area of Jackson — the state’s capital city with a population that is over 80% Black. Under H.B. 1020’s new court system, an unelected judge — appointed by the white, conservative chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court — would have jurisdiction over certain criminal and civil cases within the state’s Capitol Complex Improvement District (CCID), a special district in Jackson centered around the state capitol building with its own police force. The law also allows Mississippi’s white attorney general to appoint two prosecutors to bring criminal cases in the CCID court and expands the boundaries of the CCID.
In addition to creating an entirely new court system within the CCID, H.B. 1020 provides for the appointment of additional unelected judges to the existing Hinds County Circuit Court that has jurisdiction over Jackson. This “court-packing scheme” similarly requires the white, conservative chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court to appoint four “temporary” special judges to the Hinds County Circuit Court. Currently, the court-packing provision remains temporarily blocked pending a decision on the plaintiffs’ motion to block this portion of the law as litigation proceeds.
Aside from H.B. 1020, the NAACP’s lawsuit challenges S.B. 2343, which puts Jackson’s predominantly Black population under control of state-run Capitol Police by expanding the police force’s jurisdiction over the entirety of Jackson.
The lawsuit alleges that S.B. 2343 will stymie “[a]lmost any effort to use protests or demonstrations to challenge the Capitol Police” since the law requires “the approval of the very same unelected officials tasked with running the Capitol Police.” In late June, the federal judge presiding over the case ruled from the bench to temporarily block S.B. 2343’s anti-protest provision for violating the First Amendment.
In seeking to participate in the lawsuit, the DOJ challenges H.B. 1020, but not S.B. 2343.
In its complaint, the DOJ specifically challenges the court-packing provision of H.B. 1020 as well as the new CCID court created by the law. “H.B. 1020 intentionally discriminates against minority voters in Hinds County by creating a system of judicial and prosecutorial appointments specifically designed to undermine the historical power of Black residents, through their elected officials, to self-govern,” the DOJ’s complaint reads.
The DOJ points to how the law “has singled out Hinds County as the only place in Mississippi whose residents are subject to new special judges and prosecutors appointed by White statewide officers whom, because of racially polarized voting, they cannot hold democratically accountable.”
Importantly, the DOJ’s claims focus on how the legislative history of H.B. 1020 — as well as Mississippi’s underlying record of discrimination against its Black residents — suggests that the law was enacted with racially discriminatory intent in violation of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. In urging the court to grant its request to join the lawsuit, the DOJ explained its vested interest in the case: “This case implicates the United States’ ability to protect its sovereign interest in ensuring that persons of all races are afforded equal protection of the laws in accordance with the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”
The fate of H.B. 1020 could also be determined by the Mississippi Supreme Court.
Aside from the NAACP’s ongoing federal lawsuit, a state-level lawsuit challenging H.B. 1020 under the Mississippi Constitution, is simultaneously pending before the Mississippi Supreme Court. Although the state-level lawsuit was previously dismissed by a state trial court, the Mississippi Supreme Court — which held oral argument on July 6 — will soon issue a decision on whether H.B. 1020 violates the state constitution.