Gov. Tate Reeves prepares to answer questions from the media after signing House Bill 1671, House Bill 510 and Senate Bill 2696 into law at the Walter Sillers Building in Jackson, Miss., Wednesday, April 19, 2023. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

The ink was barely dry on Gov. Tate Reeves’ signature of legislation designed to create a separate judicial and law enforcement district within the city of Jackson before the NAACP filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the new laws.

Reeves signed controversial House Bill 1020 and its companion legislation Senate Bill 2343 on Friday afternoon. Later that day, the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People filed lawsuit in federal court of the Southern District of Mississippi.

“These laws target Jackson’s majority-Black residents on the basis of race for a separate and unequal policing structure and criminal justice system to which no other residents of the state are subjected,” the lawsuit reads.

Earlier this year the legislation generated national attention by creating a separate judicial district in the whiter and more affluent areas of Jackson, the nation’s Blackest large city. The legislation calls for judges in the district to be appointed by the white chief justice of the Supreme Court instead of elected by the city’s majority Black voters.

The legislation also expands the borders of the existing Capital Complex Improvement District to encompass more of the whiter and more affluent areas of the city and expands the jurisdiction of the state law enforcement. The state police, under the authority of the state-run Mississippi Department of Public Safety, will have primary jurisdiction in the capital complex area and secondary jurisdiction throughout the city.

According to the lawsuit, the new laws expand “the CCID to approximately 17.5 square miles to include roughly half of the white population of Jackson, when only 15 percent of the entire population of Jackson is white.”

During sharply divisive debate on the legislation in the recently completed 2023 session, both Reps. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, and Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, said they were speaking on the House floor “to make a record” for the lawsuits that would be filed.

Among those filing the lawsuit were the national, state and city chapters of the NAACP. Included as a plaintiff in the lawsuit is Derrick Johnson, who is the national president of the NAACP and a Jackson resident.

In signing the legislation Friday afternoon, Reeves said, “The fact is that Jackson has so much potential. It is our capital city and the heart of our state … But Jackson has to be better. Downtown Jackson should be so safe that it is a magnet for talented young people to come and live and work and create.

“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.”

In a news release, the governor went on to highlight Jackson’s crime problem, citing numerous statistics, including the claim that Jackson makes up 6% of the state’s population but accounts for 50% of Mississippi’s homicides.

Many quickly rebutted Reeves’ cited statistics. Brannon Miller, who runs Mississippi-based Democratic political consultant firm Chism Strategies, pointed out Reeves’ statistics were misleading.

Miller said that based on statistics from the federal Centers for Disease Control, “Mississippi had 576 murders in 2020 – the highest murder rate of any state,” and 128 of those or 22% were in Jackson. “And to be clear, that’s really high,” Miller wrote. “But even if you take Jackson out of the statistics, Mississippi would still be No. 2 in murder rate.”

Only one of the 53 Black members of the Legislature supported the bills. Black lawmakers conceded that Jackson has a crime problem and most agreed some type of state help was warranted. But they argued that members of the Jackson delegation were denied the opportunity to have input in what that help would be. They said white legislators routinely are consulted when legislation is drafted impacting their constituents.

Plus, African American legislators said the help should not include taking away the vote from Jackson’s Black majority population.

Most white members of the Legislature supported the legislation that had the backing of House and Senate Republican leaders. They argued there was no racial intent in the legislation, but only a good faith effort to solve an agreed-upon crime problem in the state’s largest and capital city.

The Senate leadership did win an argument to make the appointed judges temporary instead of permanent as was proposed by House leaders.

In the lawsuit, the NAACP makes an equal protection argument, saying it is discriminatory to force something on the residents of Jackson, including a large African American majority, that does not apply to other citizens of the state.

The lawsuit reads, “H.B. 1020 deprives and disenfranchises the predominantly Black population of Jackson of the rights accorded to every other Mississippi resident.”

The lawsuit also contends the bills make it more difficult to hold peaceful protests within the Capital Complex Improvement District, which includes the Capitol, Governor’s Mansion and other state buildings.

While the lawsuit was filed in federal court on the grounds the bills are in conflict with the U.S. Constitution, there is an argument that the legislation also violates the state Constitution that calls for elected judges. That argument, though, might have been more convincing under the original bill when the judges were appointed permanently.

Past legislation impacting the city of Jackson already is being challenged in court. A lawsuit was filed in past years after the Legislature stripped the Jackson municipal government of some of its governing authority of the Jackson- Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.