State Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, during a Senate Corrections Committee meeting on Feb. 13, 2020, at the Capitol in Jackson. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

A reworked version of a controversial House bill that will add a total of five appointed judges to the Hinds County court system and expand Capitol Police presence throughout Jackson passed by a majority vote in the Senate Tuesday. 

“The Legislature has said it wants to help Jackson,” said Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson. “Well, help and don’t hurt. If you want to help, sit down and communicate with us.”

The vote, which fell mostly along party lines, was 34 to 15 after three hours of debate. Every Democrat representing the city of Jackson voted against it after underscoring several times that they and their House counterparts from Jackson have not been at the table for the legislative process.

Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, who chairs the Judiciary A Committee and defended the legislation on the floor, called it the “Jackson bill” and said the committee’s goal of redoing the bill was to make the city safe. That echoes what bill author Rep. Trey Lamar, R-Senatobia, has said about HB 1020’s intent. 

“That’s all we’ve been trying to do,” Wiggins said. 

Senators drastically amended the original House bill, removing controversial House provisions including a proposed separate court system within the city, an expanded Capitol Complex Improvement District and permanent appointed judges. 

The amended bill that passed the Senate on Tuesday would approve five state-funded judges who would be appointed by the Supreme Court chief justice to serve until December 2025. The Senate bill would also give existing Capitol Police department jurisdiction throughout the entire city of Jackson, and it would provide funding for positions in the Hinds County court system including legal assistants.

READ MORE: ‘Only in Mississippi’: House vote to create white-appointed court system for Blackest city in America

Attorney Cliff Johnson of the MacArthur Justice Center has questioned the Legislature’s basis for having five appointed judges for Hinds County. The center attempted to analyze the number of pending criminal cases in circuit court districts across the state using Mississippi Electronic Courts, but found that system doesn’t contain accurate information. 

During debate, Horhn asked whether an analysis of court caseloads and backlogs could be completed to determine whether additional judges are needed. 

He cited data showing Hinds County Circuit Court judges closed nearly 2,700 cases last year and gave the breakdown of open cases versus disposed ones by judge. He said that the special appointed judges handled about 230 cases last year, which is about 7% of jury trials in 2022. (Horhn acknowledged that the judges didn’t get started until the fall.)

Wiggins said judicial redistricting is upcoming and information about case load and backlogs would help make decisions about whether additional judges are needed.

“What is clear is that redistricting of any kind will be focused on caseload,” Wiggins said. “We certainly know there is a backlog.” 

Wiggins agreed with Horhn that certain cases, such as violent offenses, take more time and resources to move through the court compared to misdemeanors. Horhn said case type should also be factored into consideration when adding judges. 

Wiggins proposed an amendment that would divert about $300,000 proposed to fund three additional assistant district attorneys for Hinds County. Instead, that money will go to the Crime Lab. 

House and Senate lawmakers have said backlogs within the Crime Lab impact the ability for prosecutors across the state, including in Hinds County, to receive evidence and for judges to clear cases. 

Wiggins said he made the amendment after hearing Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens say at a Monday public hearing that he doesn’t want the funding for his office. 

Horhn and Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, both called Owens from the Senate floor on Tuesday after Wiggins introduced his amendment. Blount said Owens clarified that he wants the funding for the ADAs, but backlogs with the Crime Lab and other parts of the criminal justice system need to be addressed, too. 

That amendment passed in a 32-17 roll call vote, even after Horhn and Blount urged senators to vote against it. 

A reverse repealer, which ensures the bill must return to the Senate before it can be enacted, was also added and approved. 

Several other amendments were proposed but did not pass. 

Two amendments by Sens. Barbara Blackmon of Canton and Derrick Simmons of Greenville proposed eliminating the appointed judges and adding two elected judges to the 7th Circuit Court District of Hinds County, but they failed. 

Blount proposed an amendment that would mandate the state attorney general’s office designate an independent investigator for officer-involved shootings by Capitol Police. This is because the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, which looks into all law enforcement shootings except those by troopers, and Capitol Police are under the same agency.  

Wiggins said the amendment was not relevant to the bill, so it was thrown out. 

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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.