Lawsuit: Mississippi violates rights by appointing judges

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FILE - People protest against House Bill 1020 outside the Mississippi Capitol on Jan. 31, 2023, in Jackson, Miss. The bill, which was signed into law by Republican Gov. Tate Reeves on Friday, April 21, 2023, expands the territory for a state-run police department inside the capital city of Jackson and creates a new court in the Capitol Complex Improvement District in part of the city. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)

JACKSON, Miss. – Mississippi is violating its own constitution with a new law that requires some judges to be appointed rather than elected in the state's capital city and its surrounding county, civil rights groups said in a lawsuit filed Monday.

It is the second lawsuit since Republican Gov. Tate Reeves signed bills Friday to expand state policing in Jackson, to establish a lower court with an appointed judge and to authorize four appointed judges to work alongside the four elected circuit court judges in Hinds County, which is home to Jackson.

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About 83% of residents in Jackson and 74% in Hinds County are Black, and both the city and the county are governed by Democrats. The new laws were passed by the majority-white and Republican-controlled state House and Senate over the objections of most Jackson lawmakers and many local residents.

The new lawsuit was filed Monday in Hinds County Chancery Court on behalf of three residents by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Mississippi Center for Justice, the ACLU of Mississippi and the MacArthur Justice Center. It says the Mississippi Constitution requires most judges to be elected.

“State lawmakers have said that this takeover of our judicial system is for our own good, for our own safety, and that is deeply offensive to me,” one of the plaintiffs, Ann Saunders, said in a statement. “African Americans in Mississippi died so that we could vote. How does weakening the right to self-governance make us safer?"

Stuart Naifeh, the Legal Defense Fund's redistricting project manager, said the requirement for appointed judges is “is a blatant power grab by the legislature to further silence voters and assert control over a majority-Black county.”

“Boxing voters out from electing officials who will preside over criminal cases is shameful and undermines the checks and balances that hold Mississippi’s democracy together," Naifeh said. "We will not rest until the legislature abides by the state constitution and voters have a say in who runs their courtrooms.”

The NAACP filed a lawsuit late Friday in federal court saying that “separate and unequal policing” will return Jackson under a state-run police department.

The governor said last week that the Jackson Police Department is severely understaffed, and he believes the Capitol Police, a division of the Mississippi Department of Public Safety, could provide stability. Jackson has nearly 150,000 residents and has had more than 100 homicides in each of the past three years.

“We can arrest all the violent criminals in the city, but if the judicial system puts them right back on the street — what have we really accomplished?,” Reeves said in a statement Friday.

Capitol Police officers have been patrolling around state government buildings in and near downtown, and the Jackson Police Department patrols the entire city. Critics say Capitol Police are aggressive, and expanding the territory could endanger lives.

Debate since early this year over a larger state role in Jackson has angered residents who don’t want their voices diminished in local government.

One of the laws Reeves signed Friday will create a court within a Capitol Complex Improvement District inside a portion of Jackson, and it will start work next January. The judge will be appointed by the Mississippi Supreme Court chief justice, who is a conservative white man.

The new court will have the same power as municipal courts, which handle misdemeanor cases, traffic violations and initial appearances for some criminal charges. Most municipal judges are appointed by city officials. Jackson has a Black mayor and majority-Black city council. The judge of the new court is not required to live in Jackson.

The lawsuit filed Monday says that the law does not specify how people can appeal decisions from the Capitol Complex court. People convicted of cases in the court would be housed in a state prison. In other courts, people convicted of misdemeanors would go to a county jail.

The appointed circuit court judges are to be chosen by early May and would not be required to live in Hinds County. In 2020 and 2022, Chief Justice Mike Randolph appointed retired judges from other parts of the state to help with a backlog of cases in Hinds County Circuit Court. The new appointed circuit judges would work through 2026.

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