Mississippi Supreme Court Hears Challenge To Anti-Democratic Law Targeting Jackson

WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Thursday, July 6, the Mississippi Supreme Court heard oral argument in a lawsuit challenging House Bill 1020, a recently enacted law that targets Jackson’s majority-Black population. 

The appeal before the Mississippi Supreme Court arises from a lawsuit filed on behalf of three Jackson residents alleging that H.B. 1020’s anti-democratic provisions violate the Mississippi Constitution. Back in May, a Mississippi judge dismissed the lawsuit, finding that the plaintiffs could not prove H.B. 1020 violated the state constitution.   

Two anti-democratic aspects of H.B. 1020 are at issue in the appeal. 

One of the challenged portions of the 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 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 other challenged provision 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. As of May 12, the court-packing provision remains temporarily blocked by a federal judge in a parallel lawsuit challenging H.B. 1020 under the U.S. Constitution.

At oral argument, the appellants urged the state Supreme Court to block H.B. 1020 for violating the Mississippi Constitution.

“The Mississippi Constitution forbids the judicial appointments demanded by H.B. 1020,” stated the appellants’ attorney, Cliff Johnson, in his opening statement. Elaborating on this assertion, Johnson argued that the plain text of the Mississippi Constitution states that circuit court judges must be elected by the people. In turn, the state constitution forbids judicial appointments to the Hinds County Circuit Court as required by H.B. 1020, he continued. Johnson noted that although the state constitution allows for the appointment of replacement circuit judges in limited circumstances by the governor, it does not permit the chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court to appoint additional circuit judges in any circumstance.   

In arguing against H.B. 1020’s new CCID court system, Johnson noted that this court would be unlike any other in Mississippi. Specifically, he underscored the fact that in other inferior (lower) courts in Mississippi, plaintiffs have a right of appeal. In contrast, no constitutional court in Mississippi can review the rulings of the CCID court, meaning no right of appeal exists. 

On the other side, the state defended H.B. 1020, arguing that it is constitutional and efficient. 

The state’s attorney, Scott Stewart, began by declaring that the lower court was “right” to uphold the judicial appointments prescribed by the Legislature in H.B. 1020, arguing that they “fall[] within Legislature’s constitutional purview.” Stewart also pointed out that H.B. 1020’s judicial appointments would help to ease the judicial backlog in the overcrowded Hinds County Circuit Court, while not interfering with the court’s existing elected judges. 

The state’s attorney engaged in a lengthy colloquy regarding the CCID court with Justice James H. Kitchens, a liberal-leaning member of the court. Kitchens pressed Stewart on whether the CCID court constitutes a municipal or inferior court under the state constitution and whether the unprecedented creation of the CCID court transgresses the state constitution. 

H.B. 120 “creates a previously unheard of court,” stated Kitchens, who proceeded to present the state’s attorney with a line of pointed questions: “Have you ever heard of a circuit court in Mississippi sending anybody to a state prison for a misdemeanor? Have you ever heard of such a thing? You would rise up as solicitor general of the state against that, wouldn’t you?” In response, the state’s attorney responded by insisting that the CCID court is a valid inferior and municipal court that complies with the state constitution. 

The chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court argued that he is shielded by judicial immunity.

In addition to hearing from the state’s attorney, the court also briefly heard from the attorney for the chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court, who presides over the very court in which appeal is proceeding. Chief Justice Michael Randolph is one of the named defendants in the lawsuit, as he is responsible for making the judicial appointments required under H.B. 1020. Notably, Randoplh recused himself from hearing the appeal. At oral argument, the chief justice’s attorney argued that the plaintiffs’ claims against Randolph are barred by judicial immunity. In turn, the attorney urged the court to affirm the lower court’s dismissal of claims against the chief justice. 

The fate of H.B. 1020 could be decided by the Mississippi Supreme Court or a federal court. 

Regardless of what the Mississippi Supreme Court rules, a federal court will also have the opportunity to decide on the constitutionality of H.B. 1020. A decision on whether the court-packing provision of H.B. 1020 should be preliminarily blocked is simultaneously pending in the federal lawsuit against H.B. 1020. At the close of oral argument, Kitchens stated that the “court will take this matter under advisement and will render a decision in due course.”  

Learn more about the case here.