Battle over creating new court centers on equality in Mississippi’s majority-Black capital city

Dec 11, 2023, 9:15 PM

FILE - Civil rights activist and Jackson resident Frank Figgers prepares to enter the Thad Cochran ...

FILE - Civil rights activist and Jackson resident Frank Figgers prepares to enter the Thad Cochran U.S. Courthouse in Jackson, Miss., Monday, May 22, 2023. Figgers opposes a Mississippi law that would create a court in part of Jackson with a judge and prosecutors who would be appointed rather than elected. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)

(AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The constitutional right of equal treatment under the law is at the center of a monthslong legal fight over a state-run court in part of Mississippi’s majority-Black capital city of Jackson.

A federal judge is set to hear arguments Dec. 19 over the Capitol Complex Improvement District Court, which is scheduled to be created Jan. 1.

The new court would be led by a state-appointed judge and prosecutors, and it would be the equivalent of a municipal court, handling misdemeanor cases. Municipal judges and prosecutors in Mississippi are typically appointed by local elected officials, but legislators who created the CCID Court said it was part of a package to fight crime.

The Justice Department says the new court would continue Mississippi’s long history of trying to suppress Black people’s right to participate in government.

“Just like many past efforts to undermine Black political power, (the law) singles out the majority-Black City of Jackson for loss of local control of its judicial system and ability to self-govern and enforce its own municipal laws,” wrote Kristen Clarke, assistant attorney general for the department’s Civil Rights Division, and Todd Gee, the U.S. attorney for south Mississippi, in a Dec. 5 federal court filing.

The state’s Republican attorney general disagrees, saying in a separate filing Thursday that the NAACP and Jackson residents who are suing the state have failed to prove they would be harmed.

Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch and Rex Shannon, a special assistant state attorney general, wrote on behalf of Fitch, Mississippi Public Safety Commissioner Sean Tindell and Capitol Police Chief Bo Luckey that blocking creation of the new court would cause irreparable harm.

“The Legislature established the CCID Court to address Jackson’s clearly-recognized, ongoing public-safety and criminal-justice emergencies,” Fitch and Shannon wrote. “Those emergencies gravely affect not just those living in Jackson, but all Mississippians.”

Plaintiffs are asking U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate to block creation of the new court in the district that includes state government buildings downtown and some residential and business areas, including predominantly white neighborhoods.

The court would consider misdemeanor cases, with a judge appointed by the state Supreme Court chief justice and prosecutors appointed by the state attorney general — both of whom are white and politically conservative.

Opponents say the new court would affect not only people who live or work in the district but also those who are ticketed for speeding or other misdemeanor violations there.

Mississippi legislators voted during the spring to expand the territory for the state-run Capitol Police to patrol inside Jackson. They also voted to authorize the chief justice to appoint four judges to serve alongside the four elected circuit court judges in Hinds County, where Jackson is located, and to create the Capitol Complex Improvement District Court.

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

Justice Department officials wrote that creating a new municipal-level court with a state-appointed judge and prosecutors unconstitutionally treats Jackson residents differently from other Mississippi residents.

Frank Figgers, a lifelong Jackson resident who is Black and describes himself as a community activist and NAACP member, wrote in a Nov. 13 court filing that the chief justice and the attorney general “are not accountable to me as a voter.”

Chief Justice Mike Randolph is elected from a district that does not include Jackson. Fitch won a second term during the Nov. 7 statewide election, but she trailed her Democratic challenger in Hinds County.

“In light of the long history of racism in Mississippi, my vote is the best means I have to ensure that public officials will treat me and my community fairly and equally,” Figgers wrote, adding that Fitch and Randolph “don’t need my vote, and as far as I can tell, they have made no attempt to understand my community.”

Mark Nelson, an attorney representing Randolph, responded in a Nov. 16 filing, asking Wingate to strike “disgraceful” statements by Figgers and other NAACP members from court records.

“Accusations of racism unsupported by facts or evidence are harassment and scandalous,” Nelson wrote.

In September, the state Supreme Court struck down the part of the same law dealing with appointed circuit court judges to handle felony cases and civil lawsuits. Justices noted that Mississippi law allows the chief justice to appoint judges for specific reasons, such as dealing with a backlog of cases. But they wrote that they saw “nothing special or unique” about the four appointed circuit judges in the law this year. Randolph recused himself from that case.

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Battle over creating new court centers on equality in Mississippi’s majority-Black capital city