Legislation that would create a separate judicial district within Jackson, the state’s capital and largest city, was signed into law Friday by Gov. Tate Reeves.
Reeves had indicated earlier in the week he would sign the legislation.
House Bill 1020 generated national attention by creating a separate judicial district in the whiter and more affluent areas of Jackson, the nation’s Blackest large city. Judges in the district will be appointed by the white chief justice of the Supreme Court instead of elected by the majority Black voters.
There are questions about the constitutionality of the bill. Many have speculated it would be challenged in court because it takes the right to elect judges away from the citizens of Hinds County. The Mississippi Constitution calls for judges to be elected, though there are examples where judges are appointed on a temporary basis by the Supreme Court chief justice. Whether House Bill 1020 creates an allowable exception for usurping the electoral rights of Hinds County citizens could be decided by the courts.
The final version of the bill sent to the governor watered down the more controversial aspects of the legislation as it was introduced during the 2023 session, but it still garnered the support of only one of the 53 African American members of the Legislature.
Jackson legislators conceded the city needed help with its spiraling crime problem, but said the proposal that passed the Legislature and was signed Friday by the governor created more problems than it solved.
Debate on the proposal in both the House and Senate was racially raw.
“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 … ”
Rep. Trey Lamar, R-Senatobia, the author of the legislation, said his sole intent was to help the city of Jackson and said he resented that he was made to look like his intent was racially motivated intense during debate on the House floor.
“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. 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 was intended to provide that help, not to create racial divides.
In a news release, Reeves said, “This legislation won’t solve the entire problem, but if we can stop one shooting, if we can respond to one more 911 call – then we’re one step closer to a better Jackson. I refuse to accept the status quo. As long as I’m governor, the state will keep fighting for safer streets for every Mississippian no matter their politics, race, creed, or religion – regardless of how we’re portrayed by liberal activists or in the national media.”
The bill creates a separate judicial and law enforcement district within the Capital Complex Improvement District. Four judges will be appointed by Chief Justice Michael Randolph, who is white and from Hattiesburg in south Mississippi. An additional court would be created within the district to hear misdemeanor cases and to conduct preliminary hearings in felony cases.
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 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.
The bill also provides more prosecuting attorneys and public defenders.
Companion legislation — Senate Bill 2343 —also was signed by the governor. The bill would expand the jurisdiction of a state police force both in the Capitol Complex Improvement District and the city overall. That bill also is expected to be signed.
The legislation gives a state police force primary jurisdiction within the Capitol Complex and secondary jurisdiction throughout the city.
The state is expected to have 150 state law enforcement officers patrolling in Jackson.