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Mississippi Senate advances controversial bill to appoint judges in Jackson

Although Democrats concede the bill is “vastly improved” from a version some called racially motivated, they say it remains vague and misdirected.

(CN) — The Mississippi Senate on Tuesday passed legislation to create an appointed judicial district in the capital city of Jackson, a proposal some Democrats initially characterized as a racially motivated attempt by the majority-white, Republican-controlled Legislature to strip Black residents of local control. 

The bill was heavily modified from its original version, which was introduced by House Ways and Means Chairman Trey Lamar, a Republican representing Tate and Lafayette counties in the northwest corner of the state, about a three-hour drive north of the State Capitol on Interstate 55.

As written, Lamar’s House Bill 1020 sought to create inferior courts in Jackson, where appointed judges, prosecutors and public defenders would hear criminal and civil matters alongside Hinds County’s existing elected judges. The population of Hinds County is nearly 70% Black, while the city of Jackson is nearly 80% Black. 

Controversially, Lamar’s bill would have created a special judicial district for the more white and affluent neighborhoods in Jackson and handed the court’s appointing powers to the chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court, the attorney general and the public safety commissioner, all of whom are white Republicans.

During a raucous debate in the House on Feb. 7, Lamar claimed Jackson had a violent crime rate 15 times higher than the national average and explained the bill was designed to make the capital city safer, assist the court system of Hinds County and bolster judicial resources. 

“We have to acknowledge a serious crime problem and a backlog and need for assistance in the Hinds County judiciary,” Lamar said, adding there were 153 homicides in Jackson in 2021, 130 homicides in 2022 and 1,764 criminal cases pending in Hinds County Circuit Court. 

In comments to a conservative radio host last month, Lamar said crime and infrastructure problems are also stunting economic development and investment in Jackson, where the central business district is notably less attractive than other capital cities in neighboring states.

“At the end of the day, I believe and came to the conclusion that Jackson is Mississippi’s capital city,” he said. “It does not belong exclusively to the citizens of Jackson. Mississippi as a state, as a whole, will benefit from a resurgence in economic activity in Jackson.” 

The Senate plan, clocking in at more than 1,000 pages, eliminated the special judicial district and instead proposes five temporary judges appointed by the chief justice to dispense cases in civil and criminal courts through 2026. Two judges will be exclusively assigned to a “rocket docket” in criminal courts. There are also provisions for additional assistant district attorneys, public defenders, data collection and gathering and criminal investigations. One element of the Senate bill expands the Capitol Police jurisdiction to the entire city of Jackson but will also mandate their use of body-worn cameras and dashboard cameras. 

Republican sponsor Senator Brice Wiggins, chair of one of the chamber's judiciary committees, said safety and security remains the intent of the bill. He further noted local officials have long pleaded with state legislators for more resources, and several local officials provided input for the Senate version of the bill. Yet Wiggins also warned if the Legislature fails to pass a bill on the issue in 2023, it is unlikely to return in the future.

But Senate Democrats continued to push back, saying Wiggins mischaracterized the county’s crime problem and needs. Democratic Senator John Horhn asked Wiggins to identify a distinction between a “heavy caseload” and a “backlog.” Elected judges in the district have asked for more support staff or funding to hire additional court reporters, clerks and administrators, but not more judges, Horhn said. 

Democratic Senator Angela Turner-Ford argued that bodies have been piling up at the state crime lab and the bill fails to provide more funding for forensic investigators, autopsies and toxicology reports.  

At least four Democrat-sponsored amendments to the bill were defeated. Senator Barbara Blackmon argued the judicial appointments were unconstitutional and sought an amendment providing for their election. Senator Derrick Simmons sought a separate amendment for elections. Senator Sollie B. Norwood sought to clarify First Amendment protections in the bill and Senator David Blount sought an amendment establishing a protocol for investigating officer-involved shootings.

Horhn acknowledged although the bill was “vastly improved” over its original version, “it’s still a snake and it needs to be defeated.” 

He said there was no evidence the plan would work, as it provides no guidance for supporting the judges, even with basic needs such as providing courtroom space.

“This is a broad leap into an area that is dicey at best and objectionable at the very least,” he said, emphasizing there is perhaps more of need for a capable and reliable jury pool, a budget for expert witnesses and sequestration and investment in mental health care.

“This [bill] is fraught with uncertainty and a lack of planning,” Horhn added. “We don’t even know who will assign cases and where they will be tried.”

Ultimately, the only amendment passed was a so-called reverse repealer sponsored by Republican Senator Briggs Hopson because crucially, Wiggins was unable to disclose how much the bill would cost. 

“I don’t have a fiscal note but I’m not going to sit here and sugar-coat it, we’re looking at millions of dollars,” Wiggins said. “But the state has said this is where we want to put our money.” 

The bill passed 34-15 along partisan lines, and now returns to the House of Representatives for further discussion. 

HB 1020 isn’t the only bill alleged to be targeting the local government in Jackson.

House Bill 370 sought to streamline the process to remove or recall elected officials in municipalities and was ostensibly aimed at some in Jackson, but it died in committee Feb. 9. 

Senate Bill 2889 from Republican Senator David Parker would establish the Mississippi Capitol Region Utility Board to assume control of the capital city’s water, wastewater and sewer systems in the wake of the failure of the Jackson Water System in 2022. Since, the utility has been awarded $600 million in federal funds for maintenance and repairs, money local Democrats are concerned will be redirected by Republican priorities under the proposed bill. It passed the Senate on Feb. 7 and has a Wednesday deadline to pass the House.

The Mississippi Legislature is on the 64th day of its 90-day legislative session. 

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