'Affront to democracy': Concern about appointing Mississippi judges where most are elected

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Attorney Paloma Wu, with the Mississippi Center For Justice, questions plaintiff Ann Saunders, right, during a hearing, Wednesday, May 10, 2023, in Hinds County Chancery Court in Jackson, Miss., where a judge heard arguments about a Mississippi law that would create a court system with judges who would be appointed rather than elected. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

JACKSON, Miss. – Three residents of Mississippi's capital city testified Wednesday that their rights as citizens are undermined by a new state law that would create a court inside Jackson with judges who are appointed because the state constitution requires most judges to be elected.

“It is an affront to democracy,” Ann Saunders said.

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She and the other two residents — Sabreen Sharrief and Dorothy Triplett — are the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Mississippi Center for Justice, the ACLU of Mississippi and the MacArthur Justice Center.

The lawsuit is one of two that challenge laws Republican Gov. Tate Reeves signed April 21. The laws will expand state policing in the capital city of Jackson, establish a court with an appointed judge and authorize four appointed judges to work alongside the four elected circuit court judges in Hinds County, which is home to Jackson.

Hinds County Chancery Judge Dewayne Thomas conducted a hearing Wednesday to consider a request for an order to temporarily block the creation of the new court in a portion of Jackson designated as the Capitol Complex Improvement District. Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike Randolph is asking to be dismissed as a defendant in the lawsuit, and Thomas said he is also considering that request.

Thomas said he expects to issue rulings within days.

Lawmakers created the Capitol Complex district several years ago to improve streets and other infrastructure and to provide state policing near state government buildings in and around downtown.

The majority-white and Republican-led Legislature voted this year to make the district larger, create the new court and give the state-run Capitol Police the power to patrol the entire city. People pushing the changes said they were trying to curb crime in Jackson. Local residents protested that state officials were trying to usurp power in Jackson, which is majority-Black and governed by Democrats.

A special assistant state attorney general, Rex Shannon, argued Wednesday that the state constitution allows legislators to create “inferior” courts with appointed judges. Cliff Johnson, one of the attorneys suing the state, argued the new court would not be “inferior” because it would have similar powers to circuit courts, and people convicted of misdemeanors in the new court would be sent to state prison.

Sharrief testified Wednesday that she and her family have lived in Jackson five generations, and she wants to elect judges just as people do in the rest of the state.

“It’s kind of an insult to me to have that right taken from me,” Sharrief said.

Triplett said the right to vote is sacred and having a court with appointed judges “sets us apart in a way that is not positive.”

“It's kind of bullying us in a way in saying, ‘You’re not capable of electing judges,' " Triplett said.

Shannon said he appreciates the plaintiffs' testimony, but “there is no evidence that they will experience any actual, real-world, practical harm from any of the laws they are challenging.”

The other lawsuit was filed by the NAACP in federal court, and it warns that the new laws will return “separate and unequal policing” to Jackson. A judge has not yet held a hearing on that lawsuit.

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