NAACP sues Mississippi over new judicial bill extending chief justice’s power of appointment News
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NAACP sues Mississippi over new judicial bill extending chief justice’s power of appointment

The NAACP Monday filed a lawsuit to block a new Mississippi bill that they allege would violate the state’s constitution.

House Bill (HB) 1020 allows the Mississippi Supreme Court chief justice to appoint four judges to the Circuit Court of Hinds County. While HB 1020 calls the appointed judges “temporary,” their term will last until December 2026. There is also no requirement that any of the appointed judges have connection with or reside in the county. With only eight judges serving on the circuit court, this bill allows only half of them to be elected by constituents.

The Mississippi Constitution Article VI § 153 requires that circuit and chancery court judges “be elected by the people.” However, Mississippi Code Title 9 §9-1-105(2) gives the chief justice temporary appointment power over circuit and chancery courts “in the event of an emergency or overcrowded docket.” Last year, under this code stipulation, the chief justice appointed four judges to the Circuit Court of Hinds County. Three of the judges are stilling serving on the court today. Under HB 1020, the chief justice has the power to reappoint these judges at the end of their temporary term, keeping the appointed judges in office much longer than their elected counterparts.

The NAACP argues that this bill is in direct violation of Mississippi’s constitution and works to keep power away from individual constituents. They also note that HB 1020 singles out Hinds County, a predominately black community. The bill notably does not apply to the other 21 counties in the state.

Ann Saunders, a plaintiff in the litigation, spoke out about the legislation:

State lawmakers have said that this takeover of our judicial system is for our own good, for our own safety, and that is deeply offensive to me. African Americans in Mississippi died so that we could vote. How does weakening the right to self-governance make us safer? Safety comes from communities having resources they need to develop the safeguards they know will be appropriate and effective. In the struggle for freedom, we want that responsibility. H.B. 1020 denies us that and makes us less of a democracy.

In addition to the judicial appointment, HB 1020 also creates a new court in the City of Jackson to handle preliminary criminal matters, and allows the chief justice to appoint the judge. Nearly 85 percent of the residents in the City of Jackson are black. The NAACP argues that the creation of this court is a constitutional violation as well. Despite HB 1020 calling this court an “inferior court,” the NAACP argues that there is no constitutional basis for its creation.

The lawsuit is to be first heard in the Hinds County Chancery Court.  Ultimately, the case will likely be decided by the Mississippi Supreme Court.