Mississippi House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Trey Lamar, R-Senatobia, speaks in the Mississippi House chamber in Jackson, Miss., Nov. 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)

Lawmakers backing House Bill 1020 say Hinds County’s backlog of cases is an emergency that justifies having five non-elected judges to pick up the slack.

Cliff Johnson, attorney and director of the MacArthur Justice Center, wants to know whether Hinds County really has the worst case backlog in the state. Bill author Rep. Trey Lamar, R-Senatobia, has said the bill is a way to address crime in Jackson and the backlog in the Hinds court system. 

“Our conclusion at this point is that the Legislature could not have made the decision to appoint five temporary judges to the Hinds County Circuit Court based on any meaningful analysis of that court’s dockets as compared to the dockets in any other circuit,” Johnson told Mississippi Today. 

The center began calculating the number of open criminal cases in each circuit court district between Jan. 1, 2013 and Feb. 26 before realizing Mississippi Electronic Courts — the only public-facing access to case information — doesn’t keep accurate information on pending cases. 

Only about half of all counties in the state use MEC. Without data on pending criminal cases, it is difficult to tell if there are case backlogs anywhere and be able to make comparisons, Johnson said. 

Hinds County could benefit from additional elected judges, Johnson said, but he couldn’t find the basis to determine the need to appoint five temporary judges — a number that is greater than the number of elected judges. 

Legislation passed in 2018 gives the Supreme Court chief justice the ability to appoint temporary judges “in the event of an emergency or overcrowded docket.” 

Johnson said it is unclear whether the Senate version of HB 1020 references this law to make temporary appointments or if the bill is a “novel attempt” to appoint judges without determining the existence of an emergency or an overcrowded docket. 

The Senate’s Judiciary A Committee passed HB 1020 with multiple changes: the elimination of a proposed separate, unelected judicial district within Jackson and the expansion of the Capitol Complex Improvement District where the Capitol Police operates. 

Hinds County, the Seventh Circuit Court District, had 2,508 pending cases, according to MEC data. That is a load of 627 cases each for four judges, according to the data. Over 230,000 people live in the county. 

The First Circuit Court District in the northeast part of the state has 8,522 pending cases. That district also has four judges, and its caseload calculated from MEC data is about 2,130 cases per judge. 

That district is made up of seven counties and most of the cases came from the largest, Lee County, which had 2,627 pending cases, according to MEC data. 

“As we began running reports on criminal dockets, it appeared to us that the backlog in Hinds County was not significantly worse than many other places in Mississippi,” Johnson said. “In fact, our research showed that according to MEC, even a small county like Lee County had more pending criminal cases than Hinds County.”

Staff from the Lee County Circuit Clerk’s Office and circuit court said Wednesday there is no way to know how many open criminal cases there are. Circuit Clerk Camille Roberts Dulaney did not respond to a request for comment.

The state’s Administrative Office of Courts tracks information about disposed cases across the state, but not current criminal cases, Johnson said. The office’s annual report shows disposition numbers for criminal cases and counts during a 10-year period. 

Spokesperson Beverly Kraft referred comment about case backlogs to Greg Snowden, director of the Administrative Office of Courts. He did not respond to a request for comment. 

Accurate caseload counts are among issues raised about HB 1020, which is seen by many Jacksonians as a takeover of local control.

“This bill would make Mississippi a model for red states with blue capital cities. At its core, this bill is about lawmakers giving themselves the ability to outmaneuver the federal government,” Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said in a statement. “So, by policy or through actually preventing people to vote, it still reflects the poorest version of Mississippi.”

The latest version of HB 1020 also gives the Capitol Police concurrent jurisdiction throughout Jackson and beyond the Capitol Complex Improvement District. It would require the city and the Department of Public Safety to sign a memorandum of understanding. 

Lumumba said the memorandum isn’t really an agreement between the two parties, and a spokesperson confirmed he would not sign one. 

The bill says failure to execute a memorandum of understanding will not affect Capitol Police’s jurisdiction within Jackson, and any disputes about law enforcement function of Capitol Police in the city would be resolved in favor of the DPS commissioner, who oversees the force. 

JXN Undivided, a coalition of community groups such as the People’s Advocacy Institute, One Voice and the Mississippi Center for Justice, is speaking out against HB 1020 and circulating a petition titled “Jackson is NOT for the Taking!” 

“What is happening in Jackson, Mississippi, is ruthless,” the petition reads. “It is racist. It is dangerously anti-democratic. And it must stop!”

As of Monday, the petition has received over 1,800 signatures and will be sent to Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who presides over the Senate, the body that is set to vote on HB 1020. 

JXN Undivided also has an open survey for people to share information about their encounters with the Capitol Police, including how officers treated them and how many encounters they have had. 

To test how accurate MEC’s case information is, Mississippi Today reached out to the seven circuit court clerks in the First District. 

Tishomingo County, the smallest in the circuit court district, has 467 open criminal cases, according to MEC data. It’s a number that Circuit Clerk Josh McNatt said is fairly accurate, but may be “a little over exaggerated” but no more than 5 to 10%. 

He has been having conversations with the district attorney, judges and public defenders in the county about how to track case information better. 

“I’ve been keeping up with this myself because I’ve been concerned about caseloads,” McNatt said. 

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Mina, a California native, covers the criminal justice system. Before joining Mississippi Today, she was a reporter for the Clarion Ledger and newspapers in Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and USA Today.