House Bill Imposes Unelected Judges on Majority-Black City
Hinds County Judicial officers and members of Mississippi’s largest Black metropolitan area are accusing white legislators of circumventing democratically elected judges with state-appointed bureaucrats.
The group, which included the Jackson-Branch NAACP, the Mississippi Center for Justice and the Black Women Vote Coalition, among others, announced their opposition this week to House Bill 1020, which expands the boundaries of a legislatively-created colony of white influence in the 80% Black city and creates an unelected judicial system within the district. Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba pointed out that the district is funded by Jackson businesses and customers without giving them a say in electing the judges they pay.
“We get to put all the action in someone else’s hands and pay the taxes to the king,” Lumumba said at the Capitol building press conference.
The Mississippi legislature created the Capitol Complex Improvement District in 2017 to fund infrastructure repair and beautification efforts with a tax on Jackson business activity within the district. The 2017 law creating the district installed a nine-member advisory board to oversee spending on projects. One of the advisory board members consists of the mayor (or the mayor’s designee) and one member is appointed by the Jackson City Council. Aside from the mayoral appointment, the only board member required by law to live within the city of Jackson is the one appointed by the council. All others are appointed by GOP leaders in the House, Senate and statewide offices, and can live in the city’s affluent, competing suburbs.
During the height of the Covid pandemic, the Legislature used federal relief funds to expand Capitol Building security staff (who formerly patrolled downtown government buildings) into the more robust Capitol Police unit involved in recent shootings. They also appointed four additional judges to help cut Hinds County’s judicial backlog. House Bill 1020 now goes a step further by creating new, unelected judges and an additional court system that will receive legal cases normally filed with the Hinds County Circuit Court. If the bill becomes law, it will demand new judges be appointed by a conservative, white Mississippi Supreme Court chief justice, with prosecutors appointed by the conservative, white state attorney general. And, unlike the police chief of Jackson, the chief of the Capitol Police District will not be picked by a leader elected by district residents but installed by the commissioner of the Department of Public Safety.
Members of the Hinds County Democratic Delegation, one of the few bastions of non-Republican influence in the state, vehemently opposes the bill.
“The residents of Jackson who live in the Capitol Complex Improvement District are denied the right to vote and elect judges of their choice. This is legislative overreach in its worst form,” the delegation said in a letter. “The public at large necessarily deserves a say regarding who serves on their state courts. The residents of Jackson are fully capable of deciding which judicial candidates are best suited for office.”
And decide they do. Hinds County judicial races are highly competitive, unlike much of Mississippi. Last April, less than 10 of roughly 100 chancery, circuit and appeals court judicial races across the state were even up for contest, with most “races” containing an incumbent running unopposed. The trend is little better in other states, with national comprehensive database, CivicEngine, revealing 1,510 of 1,784 national judicial races in 2020 were uncontested.
Attorney David F. Linzey told The Lighthouse last year some judicial races are uncompetitive because judicial candidates are attorneys who do not want to anger sitting judges who preside over their cases by running against them.
“Some judges are really good, and no one feels the need to challenge them because they know what they’re doing. But with other judges, there’s a certain amount of fear,” Linzey said.
Hinds County, however, buzzes with healthy competition at election time. Local voters have no patience with unimpressive or unpopular judges with burdensome political agendas, and judges suspected of acting on behalf of any authority beyond their immediate voters risks a quick turnover. This is not the case with judges appointed by party-driven ideologues in the Mississippi House and governor’s office.
Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, said the Legislature did not plan for the 2017 bill creating the district to become a trojan horse for unelected judges in the state’s biggest African-American city.
“The district was designed as a street-paving program,” Blount told The Lighthouse. “As a street-paving program, it’s been very successful, but it had nothing to do with unelected judges. Unelected judges and a special judicial district are unconstitutional.”
Blount added the 2017 bill was the closest thing the City of Jackson was likely to get to its repeated requests for Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) from the state for the use of city facilities. Much of the city’s downtown property does not generate revenue because it is occupied by state administrations and government, who pay no taxes to the city. Other states, like Minnesota, New York and Michigan compensate cities and counties for their loss of tax base from state use of land, but the majority-white Mississippi legislature annually refuses Jackson’s PILT entreaties.