Mississippi Judge Dismisses Challenge to Law Targeting Jackson, but Law Remains Blocked in Federal Case

WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Monday, May 15, a Mississippi judge dismissed a state-level lawsuit challenging House Bill 1020, a recently enacted law that targets Jackson’s majority-Black population. 

The plaintiffs behind this lawsuit — three Jackson residents — alleged that H.B. 1020’s anti-democratic provisions violated the Mississippi Constitution. One of the challenged portions of the law 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. The other provision provides for the appointment of additional unelected judges to the existing Hinds County Circuit Court that has jurisdiction over Jackson. 

Although today’s decision is a loss for Jackson residents, portions of H.B. 1020 remain temporarily blocked pending a hearing in a separate, federal lawsuit challenging the law for violating the U.S. Constitution.  

In today’s decision denying the plaintiffs’ requested relief and dismissing the lawsuit, the judge held that “[t]his Court cannot find that Plaintiffs herein have proven unconstitutionality beyond a reasonable doubt,” concluding that “[a]fter careful consideration, this Court finds that Plaintiffs’ claims fail on the merits.” In particular, the judge held that the new court system created by H.B. 1020 does not violate the state constitution nor does H.B. 1020’s “court-packing scheme” that adds four unelected judges to the existing court that oversees Jackson. 

Under H.B. 1020’s new court system, an unelected judge would have jurisdiction over certain “preliminary criminal matters and certain misdemeanor 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. In their complaint, the plaintiffs underscored the “unprecedented nature” of H.B. 1020’s new CCID court, under which individuals convicted of misdemeanors are “incarcerated in a state prison…rather than in a jail.” This scheme, the plaintiffs noted, deviates from the norm of all other Mississippi courts where “misdemeanor offenders sentenced to incarceration serve their time in a local county jail.”

Notably, the unelected CCID judge will be appointed by the chief justice of the state Supreme Court who is a white, conservative man. The lawsuit contended that the “Mississippi Constitution does not authorize the Chief Justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court to appoint any judge to any court for any reason.” 

The other challenged provision that the judge upheld in today’s order — H.B. 1020’s “court-packing scheme” — similarly requires the white, conservative chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court to appoint four “temporary” judges to the Hinds County Circuit Court. It does so despite the fact that Black Mississippians make up over 80% of Jackson’s population and have historically elected Black judges to serve on that court. In turn, the plaintiffs argued that H.B. 1020 singles out Jackson since these appointed judges would not serve on any of Mississippi’s other 21 circuit court districts. 

According to the plaintiffs, H.B. 1020’s “court-packing scheme” — which does not require appointed judges to even live in Hinds County and allows these “temporary” appointed judges to serve until 2026 — contravenes the Mississippi Constitution’s requirement that circuit court judges “be elected by the people.” Therefore, they asserted that H.B. 1020 deprives Hinds County residents “of their constitutional right to vote for local circuit judges and to have their rights determined by courts legally exercising jurisdiction over them.” 

The judge disagreed with the plaintiffs’ arguments, holding that the “appointment of temporary special judges does not ‘dilute the power of the duly elected judges.’” “As a lifelong resident of Hinds County and a faithful voter in local elections, [I am] keenly aware of the Plaintiffs’ expressed feelings regarding the appointment of special circuit court judges and the creation of a CCID Court. However, disappointment and frustration with the legislative process does not create a judicial right to relief. While the Court is sympathetic to the Plaintiffs’ feelings, it cannot find that the same constitutes irreparable harm,” the judge stated. 

As of now, the fate of H.B. 1020 remains uncertain, but a challenge to the law will continue in federal court at a hearing set for May 22. There is also a possibility that today’s decision will be appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court, with the judge recognizing as much: “This matter is now fully ripe for appellate review,” he concluded.

Read the decision here. 

Learn more about the case here.