In a unanimous 8-0 ruling, the court deemed unconstitutional a provision of the anti-democratic law that would have allowed the white, conservative chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court — who recused himself from hearing the appeal — to appoint four unelected “temporary” judges to the existing Hinds County Circuit Court that oversees Jackson, the state capital. Given that Jackson residents elect circuit judges, H.B. 1020’s “court-packing” provision would have deprived Jackson residents, 80% of whom are Black, of the right to vote for their judges.
In the same order, the state Supreme Court ruled 6-2 to uphold a separate provision of H.B. 1020 that creates a new court system with an unelected judge — also appointed by the chief justice — in an area of Jackson known as the Capitol Complex Improvement District (CCID). The new court would have jurisdiction over certain criminal cases in the CCID, a special district centered around the state capitol building that has its own police force.
Yesterday’s ruling stems from a state-level lawsuit filed on behalf of three Jackson residents alleging that some of 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 a state constitutional violation. The plaintiffs appealed the dismissal to the state Supreme Court, which heard oral argument on July 6.
“[W]e agree…that [the] creation of four new appointed temporary special circuit judges’ in the Seventh Circuit Court District for a specified, almost-four-year term violates our Constitution’s requirement that circuit judges be elected for a four-year term,” the opinion states. The court held that a separate statute challenged by the lawsuit — which allows the chief justice to make discretionary appointments of temporary special judges to address emergencies or overcrowded dockets — complies with the Mississippi Constitution.
In upholding H.B. 1020’s creation of a new CCID court, the six-justice majority held that the new court constitutes a legitimate municipal and inferior (lower) court under the state constitution. The plaintiffs had argued that the CCID court was not a valid inferior court since unlike other inferior courts in Mississippi, litigants do not have an express right of appeal. According to the plaintiffs, no constitutional court in Mississippi can expressly review the rulings of the CCID court.
“While we agree…that [the] absence of an express appeal provision is perhaps not ideal, we equally agree this absence is not fatal. Simply put, [the provision] does not have to expressly include a right to appeal. This is because other existing statutes—which the Legislature was certainly entitled to consider and rely on—already govern the appeals process,” the opinion reads.
In other words, the majority held that the existing appeals process for municipal courts does apply to H.B. 1020’s new CCID court. The majority also ruled that the CCID court’s novel features — such as its authority to place individuals convicted of a misdemeanor in state prison — do not render it unconstitutional.
Although the state court litigation over H.B. 1020 is now resolved, a separate lawsuit in federal court challenging multiple aspects of the law — including the new CCID court — is ongoing.