The state of Mississippi’s racial wounds and sordid history were again thrust into full view at the Capitol on Friday as the House debated and passed controversial bills that would impose state control over the judicial system in the majority-Black city of Jackson.
House Bill 1020 and its companion Senate Bill 2343 have for weeks attracted negative national attention for giving white state leaders new judicial and expanded police authority over capital city Jackson, the Blackest large city in the nation.
The measures would give the white chief justice of the state Supreme Court the authority to appoint judges to hear cases in the district. This is unique in that every other court district in the state has elected judges rather than appointed judges.
The bills would also expand the jurisdiction of Capitol Police, a state police agency managed by the Department of Public Safety and its appointed agency head who is white. Every other municipality in the state has a local police force with main jurisdiction.
The legislation that passed the House late on Friday was a compromise between House and Senate leaders. Because it passed the Senate late Thursday, it now heads to the desk of Gov. Tate Reeves for signature. It was one of the final bills passed by lawmakers in the combative 2023 session.
The controversial Jackson bills passed the white and Republican-controlled Legislature by an overwhelming margin. Every Black lawmaker in the House and Senate but one — Rep. Angela Cockerham, an independent from Magnolia — voted against the bills.
Supporters of the legislation say that the judges, under the final version of the bill, will only serve for a limited period of time and that there still will be four elected judges hearing criminal cases in Hinds County.
Debate of the bill on the House floor on Friday became tense and heated, highlighting the racial tension that has been festering all session. House Ways and Means Chair Trey Lamar, a Republican from Senatobia and the author of HB 1020, told members on Friday he was going “to refuse to take the race-laced, unfactual rhetoric as bait” as he defended the bill.
Lamar said that he was unfairly labeled as a racist when all he was trying to do is aid the citizens of Jackson — many of whom he said had asked for help with the crime problems besetting Mississippi’s capital and largest city. Lamar said the bill had nothing to do with race.
“When you take away the right of people to elect their officials who have traditionally been elected, how else are they going to see it?” asked Rep. Ed Blackmon, a Democrat from Canton. “…The right to vote may not mean much to some of you, but when you look at history that got us to where we are today, when it took so long and lost so many lives…
“Gentleman, you have not been beaten for asking for the right to vote,” Blackmon said to Lamar. “You have not been locked up for asking for that. I have. Yes, I am sensitive to that.”
Rep. Willie Bailey, a Democrat from Greenville, said in an impassioned, angry response from the well of the House chamber: “You don’t tell me not to talk about race.”
All session and on Friday, members of the Jackson delegation said that they had asked for help for their city, but lamented that the majority-white House leadership did not allow them to be involved in deciding the shape that help should take. They asked why money could not be provided for additional Jackson city police officers and for another elected judge in the city of Jackson.
They said majority white cities in the state would not be treated the same as Jackson — which is more than 80% African American and the Blackest city in the nation with a population of more than 100,000.
Rep. Zakiya Summers, a Democrat from Jackson, asked, “When people say they are just trying to help, but the elected officials from the city of Jackson say this is not help, why is that not enough?”
The legislation would create a separate judicial and law enforcement district within the Capital Complex Improvement District. Four judges would be appointed by Chief Justice Michael Randolph, who is white and from Hattiesburg. An additional court would be created within the district to hear misdemeanor cases and to conduct preliminary hearings in felony cases.
The legislation gives the state Department of Public Safety the authority to send to prison those convicted of misdemeanor crimes that carry jail time. Normally such sentences are served in local jails.
Unlike the original version of House Bill 1020, the specially appointed judges would be for a set period of time — through 2026 — instead of being in place permanently. The legislation gives a state police force primary jurisdiction within the Capitol Complex and secondary jurisdiction throughout the city.
Blackmon and Rep. Robert Johnson, a Democrat from Natchez, both said on the floor they were making a record during their remarks for the lawsuit that is likely to be filed because of the legislation. The basis of the lawsuit, they said, is that the proposal takes the right to vote away from the African American population of the city.
While the city is more than 80% African American, Blackmon pointed out the demographics of the Capital Complex District will be close to 50-50.
Lamar said the Legislature opted to create the special court and police force instead of providing additional resources to the city government because the city leaders had shown incompetence in other areas — such as in in providing water, sewer and garbage services. In reality, though, city officials have nothing to do with the governance of the felony court district that includes the city of Jackson.
Rep. Nick Bain, a Republican from Corinth, said he had heard from many Jacksonians who said they wanted help with crime issues facing the city.
“This is the capital city of Mississippi,” Bain said. “It belongs to each and every one of us in this room.” He said the legislation passed Friday was intended to provide that help, not to create racial divides.
But those racial divides were front and center on Friday, and many lawmakers said these bills — and the debate of them — will leave a stinging feeling as lawmakers conclude their work in the final hours of the 2023 legislative session.