In federal challenge to Mississippi law, arguments focus on racial discrimination and public safety

A federal judge will consider arguments over racial discrimination, public safety and local democracy as he decides whether to block appointments to a state-run court set to be created on Jan. 1 in part of Mississippi’s majority-Black capital city

Michael Goldberg
Wednesday 20 December 2023 23:58 GMT
Black City White Legislature
Black City White Legislature (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

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A federal judge will consider arguments over racial discrimination, public safety and local democracy as he decides whether to block appointments to a state-run court set to be created on Jan. 1 in part of Mississippi’s majority-Black capital city.

Attorneys for Mississippi and the NAACP, who represent Jackson residents suing the state, each laid out their arguments Tuesday before U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate. The federal judge will decide whether to grant the NAACP's motion for a preliminary injunction blocking the appointment of judges and prosecutors to the new court in part of Jackson.

Brenden Cline, an attorney representing the NAACP, said the court was created by a discriminatory law that violates the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. The appointment rather than election of judges and prosecutors deprives Hinds County residents of exercising local control over the criminal justice system that other communities enjoy, he said.

“The 14th amendment would stop at the city’s borders,” Cline said. “We don’t believe a court has ever said that. And the implications are frightening.”

The discretion over how to handle the cases of people in the court's jurisdiction would lie in the hands of politically unaccountable officials, diluting the power of voters, Cline said. The court would consider misdemeanor cases, with a judge appointed by the state Supreme Court's chief justice and prosecutors appointed by the state attorney general — both of whom are white and politically conservative.

Mississippi's Republican-controlled, majority-white Legislature voted during the spring to expand the territory for the state-run Capitol Police to patrol inside Jackson. The city and Hinds County are both majority-Black and governed by Democrats. The Legislature also authorized the chief justice to appoint four judges to serve alongside the four elected circuit court judges in Hinds County and to create a court for the Capitol Complex Improvement District, an area of Jackson home to government buildings, medical centers and colleges.

Rex Shannon, a special assistant state attorney general, argued the law is race-neutral and that Mississippi's constitution does not provide a right to elect municipal prosecutors. He also said the government had a legitimate interest in trying to curb Jackson's “crime cancer,” a phrase Wingate used when he ruled the Mississippi Supreme Court chief justice cannot be sued over the state law.

The area is the economic engine of Jackson, and the capital city will see increased outward migration and declining tax revenue if it doesn’t do more to stop crime, Shannon argued.

The state-run police Capitol Police force in the area has grown in size and made more arrests in recent years. As a result, the creation of a new court is necessary, Shannon said. He also said some Hinds County judges have refused to sign search warrants for the Capitol Police, whose officers some residents have accused of being overzealous.

Shannon said “accusations of racism seem to get thrown around a lot,” but 75% of Capitol Police officers are Black.

Taxpayer money, and who gets to control it, is at the center of the competing arguments. The Legislature created a new court instead of using those resources for the existing court system in Jackson. The NAACP cast that move as a radical departure from the status quo.

In response, Shannon said Jackson had a dysfunctional city government, and that state lawmakers feared local officials would squander the resources. Wingate asked Shannon for evidence supporting the idea city officials would use the money improperly, and Shannon declined to answer. But he referred elsewhere in his arguments to the city's problems managing its water and garbage systems.

The NAACP also took aim at Rep. Trey Lamar, the Republican chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Lamar packed the law with irrelevant revenue provisions so he could steer the bill through Ways and Means without the approval of other relevant committees, Cline said.

In a written statement to The Associated Press, Lamar said the revenue provisions were not irrelevant and that there is “absolutely zero discriminatory intent" behind the creation of the new court.

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.

Wingate, who listened quietly to the arguments with few interruptions, promised to issue a ruling before the court is set to be created on Jan. 1.

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Michael Goldberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow him at @mikergoldberg.

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