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Mississippi high court blocks appointment of some judges in majority-Black capital city and county

Sep 21, 2023, 4:45 PM

FILE - Sabreen Sharrief, right, reaches out to hug fellow plaintiff Dorothy Triplett after testifyi...

FILE - Sabreen Sharrief, right, reaches out to hug fellow plaintiff Dorothy Triplett after testifying at a hearing May 10, 2023, in Hinds County Chancery Court in Jackson, Miss., where a judge heard arguments about a Mississippi law that would allow some circuit judges to be appointed rather than elected. The Mississippi Supreme Court issued a ruling Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023, striking down the part of the law dealing with four appointed circuit judges for Hinds County. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The Mississippi Supreme Court on Thursday struck down part of a state law that would have authorized some circuit court judges to be appointed rather than elected in the capital city of Jackson and the surrounding county, which are both majority-Black.

Critics said the law was an effort by the majority-white Legislature to stomp on voting rights and to treat Jackson and Hinds County residents unfairly in a state where most judges are elected.

In the ruling, justices affirmed a part of the law that creates a new court to hear misdemeanor cases in a part of Jackson that includes the state Capitol and other state government buildings.

Justices said the Mississippi Constitution allows legislators to create “inferior” courts, and the new Capitol Complex Improvement District court would have the same powers as a municipal court, with the CCID judge appointed by the state’s chief justice. The ruling also made clear that people will have a right to appeal decisions made by the new court.

Jackson residents who sued to challenge the law issued statements Thursday praising the Supreme Court decision.

“As a citizen of Jackson who has traced my family’s documented presence in Mississippi back to 1855, I am grateful for the clarity of the state constitution regarding the election of circuit court judges, and I am grateful for the Justices affirming that constitutional requirement,” Ann Saunders said.

Another plaintiff, Dorothy Triplett, said state leaders should work with the city of Jackson rather than attempt a “hostile takeover” of citizens’ rights.

“My hope is that today’s ruling will convince legislators that the people of Jackson aren’t just going to roll over when targeted, especially when fundamental principles of our democracy are attacked,” Triplett said.

Legislators voted this year to expand the territory of the state-run Capitol Police department in Jackson, to create the new court and to authorize the appointment of four circuit judges in Hinds County. Supporters said they were trying to improve safety in the city of about 150,000 residents, which has had more than 100 homicides in each of the past three years.

Opponents said the Republican-controlled Legislature and Republican Gov. Tate Reeves were usurping local autonomy in Jackson and Hinds County, which are governed by Democrats.

Circuit judges hear criminal cases for felonies such as murder and aggravated assault. They also hear civil lawsuits. The law said the temporary circuit judges would be appointed by the chief justice to serve through 2026, which is most of the four-year term served by the elected judges.

Justices noted in the ruling Thursday that a longstanding Mississippi law allows the chief justice to appoint some justices for specific reasons, such as to deal with a backlog of cases. But they wrote that “we see nothing special or unique” about the four appointed Hinds County circuit judges in the law this year, “certainly nothing expressly tethering them to a specific judicial need or exigency.”

Although race has been a big part of legislative and public debate about the law, it was not a central issue during the Supreme Court arguments.

Chief Justice Mike Randolph recused himself from hearing the case because the lawsuit originally named him as one of the defendants.

In May, Hinds County Chancery Judge Dewayne Thomas dismissed the Jackson residents’ lawsuit days after he removed Randolph as a defendant. Thomas wrote that appointing judges does not violate the Mississippi Constitution.

A federal lawsuit filed by the NAACP challenges the appointment of judges and the expansion of the state police role in Jackson, arguing that the law creates “separate and unequal policing” for the city compared to other parts of Mississippi. U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate temporarily put the law on hold, which has blocked Randolph from appointing the four temporary circuit court judges. Wingate also wrote that: “Jackson has a crime cancer.”

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Mississippi high court blocks appointment of some judges in majority-Black capital city and county