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)

Legislation that has brought hours of bitter debate, has inspired broad negative national attention and has racially divided the Mississippi Legislature about its capital city of Jackson took a penultimate step towards reaching the governor’s desk Thursday night.

The Senate passed House Bill 1020, which would create separate, appointed courts for downtown and more affluent, whiter parts of Jackson — the Blackest large city in the nation. The Senate also passed a companion measure that will expand state police jurisdiction in the city.

The vote, over objections from the Jackson legislative delegation and every Black senator, was 31-15. The measure will be taken up by the House, where it is expected to pass, on Friday, likely the last day of the 2023 legislative session. If passed in the House, the measure will reach Gov. Tate Reeves’ desk for signature or veto.

If it becomes law, judges for this area will be appointed by the Mississippi Supreme Court chief justice, not elected like everywhere else in Mississippi. People who call for help there will reach a separate 9-1-1 system for the state-run Capitol Police. Those arrested there, even for misdemeanor crimes such as DUI, will be held in a state prison, not a city or county lockup.

White, Republican legislative leaders say they’re fed up with crime in the capital city and are trying to help. City and legislative leaders from Jackson say it’s an unconstitutional state takeover that smacks of Jim Crow separate-but-equal governance.

READ MORE: House revives state police expansion and bitter fight over Jackson ‘takeover’

Weeks of haggling between House and Senate leaders and changes to the measures — including making the separate circuit and municipal-type court systems temporary through 2026 and 2027 — did little to allay opposition.

“It’s almost as if folks resent Jackson — politically, economically, socially, racially — and we’ve been out to get Jackson,” said Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson. “That’s what it feels like, in this Legislature, like we’re out to get Jackson. It’s not that we see a problem and we’ve got to help our capital city. It’s almost as if we’re doing everything we can to ensure it fails and gets flushed down the Pearl River.

“… State government has basically left Jackson to its own devices for many years now,” Horhn continued. “… You take as much of the resources as you can out of the city, and then you blame us when things go wrong … We will not be a great state if we don’t have a great city. We will not be a great state if we don’t have a great capital city, and we will not be a great state if Black folks and white folks don’t learn to get along and do things for our mutual benefit.”

Some lawmakers questioned the legality and constitutionality of the measures.

“There will be two systems of justice for people in Jackson,” said Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson. “If you’re in this neighborhood, you have one type of justice. If you’re in this neighborhood, you have this type. It’s fundamentally un-American and unconstitutional. Not only do you have a different kind of justice, people in this part of town have one 9-1-1 system. People in this part have this 9-1-1 system. How is that equal protection under the law? We have almost completely segregated politics in Mississippi right now, let’s be honest.”

Senate Judiciary Chairman Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, helped haggle out a final version of HB 1020 and argued for its passage. He told his colleagues about inviting two women from New Mexico to come appear before his committee a couple of years ago. He said they stayed in a downtown Jackson hotel the night before the meeting.

“They said they were scared to walk to the Capitol,” Wiggins said. “… I could see it in their faces. They thought they were going to be harmed. They had to take a cab. They couldn’t walk downtown to the Capitol.”

“This is not about race,” Wiggins said. “This is about helping the citizens of Jackson … We have to stop the divisive race baiting when all we are trying to do is help our fellow Mississippians.”

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Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.