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Mississippi Supreme Court Blocks Part of Law Changing How Jackson Judges Are Selected

The court struck down the creation of new appointed circuit judges while leaving an inferior court intact


Last week, the Mississippi Supreme Court struck down part of a controversial law that created new appointed judgeships and prosecutors in Hinds County, an area that includes the capital city of Jackson and is over 70 percent Black. For over a century, Mississippi voters have chosen their circuit judges through elections. In Saunders v. State, the court held that portions of the new law violated the state constitution’s requirement that circuit court judges be “elected by the people.”

The law at issue, House Bill 1020, prompted protests earlier this year and a federal lawsuit claiming that its provisions are racially discriminatory. Among other things, the law created four special circuit judges for Hinds County, which were to be appointed by the chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court instead of voted on by local residents. It also created a new inferior court with jurisdiction over the Capitol Complex Improvement District (CCID), a development district that funds and administers infrastructure projects for state properties in Jackson. And it authorized the chief justice to appoint CCID judges and gave the Mississippi attorney general the authority to appoint new CCID prosecutors. Its proponents claim the law is a response to high crime rates.

The Saunders plaintiffs raised two state constitutional challenges to H.B. 1020. First, they argued that the creation of circuit judgeships appointed by the chief justice violates the state constitution’s mandate that circuit judges be elected. Second, the plaintiffs claimed that the legislature exceeded its constitutional authority in creating the CCID court. While the constitution authorizes the legislature to create “inferior courts,” the plaintiffs contended that the CCID court was not an inferior court because there was no explicit right to appeal CCID court judgments. The plaintiffs also challenged another Mississippi law that permits the chief justice to appoint temporary special circuit judges in the event of an emergency or overcrowded docket. 

While the Saunders court agreed with the plaintiffs that the creation of four appointed judgeships in Hinds County violated the constitution’s mandate that circuit judges be elected, it rejected the plaintiffs’ other claims. In doing so, the court affirmed the chief justice’s authority to appoint temporary special judges, but only in districts facing emergencies or overcrowded dockets and solely for the duration of such exigent circumstances. H.B. 1020 exceeded this authority, the court concluded, by creating four unelected judgeships to serve effectively a full term without “tethering them to a specific judicial need or exigency.” 

As for the CCID court, the high court was satisfied that it would be governed by other statutes providing a right to appeal and that it was therefore an inferior court, which the legislature has the authority to establish. However, a dissent admonished the majority for “simply pretend[ing]” the right to appeal is present in the law when the legislature should have enacted it.

Mississippi is not alone in drawing controversy for establishing new courts or judgeships using processes designed as temporary backstops for overcrowded dockets. For example, while North Carolina’s constitution requires that “regular” superior court judges be elected for eight-year terms, a separate constitutional provision permits the legislature to pass laws for the selection or appointment of “special or emergency” superior court judges. Since 1993, North Carolina governors have appointed such judges at the pace of one or two every few years and to serve only five-year terms. Last week, the North Carolina legislature passed a budget authorizing it to appoint 10 special superior court judges to serve eight-year terms.

Notably, the Saunders plaintiffs did not raise state claims that Mississippi’s new law was racially discriminatory. A parallel federal lawsuit, however, claims that the circuit appointments, creation of the CCID court, and appointment of CCID prosecutors intentionally discriminate on the basis of race in violation of the Equal Protection Clause. Plaintiffs are also challenging a related expansion of the jurisdiction of a state police force in Jackson as racially discriminatory. 

While the federal trial court is yet to rule on the merits, it issued a temporary restraining order against the chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court but later dismissed him as a defendant on grounds of judicial immunity. In light of the Mississippi Supreme Court’s ruling in Saunders, the chief justice will be free to make the CCID appointments pending further developments in the federal case. 

Michael Milov-Cordoba is a counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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