Controversial House legislation that would create a special judicial district within the city of Jackson with judges appointed instead of elected was significantly changed Thursday by the Senate Judiciary A Committee.
The House legislation was opposed by many because it created permanent judicial posts appointed by the white chief justice of the state Supreme Court, instead of elected by the Black majority population of Jackson.
Under changes made by the Senate panel, there no longer would be a separate judicial district with appointed judges. The Senate plan unveiled by Senate Judiciary A Chair Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, would place in law five special judges appointed by Chief Justice Michael Randolph to help ease the backlog of cases currently facing the four elected circuit judges serving Hinds County and the city of Jackson. Those special judges could hear cases until December 2026. The bill would also add another elected judge for the Hinds County judicial district. That judge would be elected in 2026 and assume office in January 2027.
The Senate plan also would eliminate another controversial portion of the House proposal that expanded an existing Capital Complex Improvement District to cover what many members of the Jackson legislative delegation described as the whiter and more affluent areas of the city. The Senate plan would give state law enforcement, which currently has jurisdiction in the existing Capital Compex Improvement District, police powers throughout the city. Some members of the city’s delegation said language dealing with the expanded jurisdiction needed to be “tweaked” at the least to give the city more say in establishing the guidelines for that expanded jurisdiction.
But members of the Jackson delegation liked the fact the new plan provided three additional assistant district attorneys and three additional public defenders for Hinds County. The House plan placed the new prosecutors in the office of the state attorney general instead of the office of the district attorney of Hinds County
Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, said the plan passed by the Senate Judiciary A Committee was “less onerous” than the House plan. He said there are still areas to improve the Senate proposal that he hoped could be addressed as the proposal moves through the process.
Other members of the Jackson delegation described the changes made by the Senate panel as steps in the right direction, though, they said it was too early to commit to voting for the measure. Rep. Zakiya Summers, D-Jackson, and others said it will be important to have members of the Jackson delegation in the final negotiations on the bill should it go to a conference committee. That’s where key House and Senate members meet to work out differences between the two chambers’ versions of a bill.
House Bill 1020 was authored by House Ways and Means Chair Trey Lamar. He said it was “a good faith effort to deal with the crime problem facing the state’s largest and capital city.
But the proposal quickly became a powder keg. It was described in emotional debate earlier this month on the House floor as a version of old Jim Crow laws that stripped Black people of their voting rights.
Just hours before the Senate Judiciary A Committee met, Jackson legislators held a news conference at the state Capitol to urge Senate leadership to consider their recommendations.
State Rep. Ronnie Crudup Jr., D-Jackson, said legislative leaders for years have ignored the recommendation made by Hinds County legislators to deal with Jackson’s problems.
“What we have gotten is a refusal to let the solutions we’ve proposed out of committee. We’ve gotten blame when our city, starved for resources, continues to struggle (and) accusations of inept Black leaders. And finally, the threat of a takeover,” Crudup said, flanked by other legislators from Jackson and some Democratic colleagues from other parts of the state.
“This piecemeal takeover of the city — disenfranchising our voters, creating a hand-picked judicial system, prioritizing the safety of one group of Jacksonians over another — … isn’t coming from a place of care,” Crudup said. “Make no mistake: this is not altruistic. This is about control. Plain and simple. This is about carving out a portion of the city and making a distinction between Jacksonians: those who warrant additional investment, and those who will be left to deal with the issues facing their city with limited resources and virtually no support from their state government.”
The Jackson legislators said their recommendations have included:
- An additional elected judge for the Hinds County district.
- State funding to help the Jackson Police Department instead of spending $18 million for law enforcement to patrol solely in the Capital Complex Improvement District.
- Additional funding for the state Crime Lab. They said the inability of the Crime Lab to timely analyze evidence and provide testimony for trials has contributed to a backlog of cases.
- Additional funds for parks and recreation activities in the city, as Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, said has been done for other communities across the state.
- Additional funds for guidance counselors and other support in city schools.
Lamar has defended the legislation, saying it was proposed to help not harm the city.
“The genesis of HB 1020 was the need for public safety. Spikes in both violent and property crime have made it so that families don’t feel safe in their own communities. Many who live outside of Jackson literally fear traveling to their capital city. For two years in a row, Jackson has been saddled with the highest per capita murder rate in the nation,” he wrote in a commentary he provided to members of the media.
He said there are other instances where there are appointed judges hearing cases in the state. But no one has pointed out an instance where there are permanent appointed judges of essentially equivalent jurisdiction hearing cases.