WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Monday, April 24, three Jackson, Mississippi residents filed a lawsuit challenging a recently enacted law, House Bill 1020, that targets Jackson’s majority-Black population. Last Friday, on the same day H.B. 1020 was signed into law, civil rights groups filed a federal lawsuit challenging the new law (as well as another law expanding state-run policing in Jackson), making yesterday’s complaint the second legal challenge against the H.B. 1020, this time in state court.
Among its numerous anti-democratic provisions, H.B. 1020 creates a new court system with an unelected judge in a portion of Jackson, the state’s capital city with a population that is over 80% Black. Specifically, the unelected judge will 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. Under H.B. 1020, the unelected CCID judge is appointed by the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, who is a white conservative man. The plaintiffs contend 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 plaintiffs argue that although the state constitution allows the Legislature to create new inferior (lower) courts, the new CCID court does not constitute a proper inferior court since plaintiffs in this court have “no right of appeal to any court.” In all other inferior courts in Mississippi, plaintiffs have a right to appeal to another court for review. The plaintiffs also underscore the “unprecedented nature” of H.B. 1020’s new CCID court, under which “people convicted of misdemeanor offenses” are “incarcerated in a state prison…rather than in a jail.” This scheme, the plaintiffs note, deviates from the norm of “all other Mississippi courts” where “misdemeanor offenders sentenced to incarceration serve their time in a local county jail.”
In addition to creating an entirely new court system within Jackson’s CCID, H.B. 1020 adds additional, unelected justices to the existing Hinds County Circuit Court that has jurisdiction over Jackson. In particular, H.B. 1020 requires the white, conservative chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court to appoint four “temporary” judges to the the Hinds County Circuit Court, 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 this way, H.B. 1020 singles out Jackson since these appointed judges will not serve on any of Mississippi’s other 21 circuit court districts, the complaint highlights.
The plaintiffs allege that 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.” In turn, the plaintiffs assert 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 lawsuit implicates another pre-existing statute: The plaintiffs argue that a separate law that permits the chief justice to “appoint a special judge to serve on a temporary basis…in the event of an emergency or overcrowded docket” similarly violates the Mississippi Constitution, which only allows for the appointments of circuit judges in limited circumstances by the governor — not the chief justice. The lawsuit asks the court to temporarily and permanently block H.B. 1020 and declare the law in violation of the state constitution.