Members of the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus hold hands and sing "We Shall Overcome" following a news conference where they expressed disappointment at the passage of House Bill 1020, legislation that would create a separate court system in the Capitol Complex Improvement District, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023, at the Mississippi Capitol in Jackson. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

The three Jackson women serving as plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the controversial House Bill 1020 testified Wednesday the law would impact their right to elect judges from their community like other residents of the state are able to do. 

“It adds insult to injury,” said plaintiff Ann Saunders about the establishment of a Capitol Complex Improvement District court within Jackson. 

“It’s usurping the right that the great state of Mississippi has written into its constitution that I have,” she said. “For some reason my city, my county is being singled out for something other than legitimate access to the court and a legitimate reflection of the court that represents our vote.” 

Saunders testified with plaintiffs Dorothy Triplett and Sabreen Sharrief before Hinds Chancery Judge Dewayne Thomas, who ordered a temporary restraining order last week. 

The goal of the Wednesday hearing was to hear from the plaintiffs and for the attorneys to make their case about the constitutionality of HB 1020. 

Residents and Democratic lawmakers have spoken out against HB 1020, including concerns that it would empower white state officials to appoint judges instead of having them elected by citizens of the majority-Black city and create a separate police force within Jackson. 

Jackson lawmakers say they were not consulted in the crafting of the legislation. 

Thomas is expected to rule by the end of the week whether to approve a preliminary injunction to stop the bill from being implemented. That decision could lead to either of the sides asking for the Mississippi Supreme Court to hear the lawsuit in an appeal. 

MacArthur Justice Center Director Cliff Johnson, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, said the ultimate goal is a permanent injunction that would prevent the appointment of temporary judges and the creation of a Capitol Complex Improvement District court. 

Gov. Tate Reeves signed HB 1020 into law April 21, and within days it faced two lawsuits – one by the NAACP in federal court and the other in state court. Both lawsuits argue HB 1020 is unconstitutional. 

The plaintiffs are represented by the ACLU of Mississippi, the Mississippi Center for Justice, the MacArthur Justice Center and the Legal Defense and Educational Fund. 

“We begin where we end with the constitution,” Johnson told the judge about the state constitution requirement that all circuit court judges be elected. “The Legislature went too far and it missed the mark.”

Rex Shannon, an attorney from the attorney general’s office, said the state is against an injunction and that HB 1020 doesn’t violate the state constitution because the Legislature can create inferior courts and because the constitution allows temporary judges to be appointed.  

The state has also asked for the lawsuit to be dismissed, arguing that it doesn’t have proper jurisdiction with the chancery court, it doesn’t show violation of the constitution and it doesn’t show that the plaintiffs have suffered or will suffer harm that is different from harm experienced by the general public. 

Johnson said there is a notion by the state that Jackson is troubled and that justifies state intervention in the local criminal justice system and the deprivation of the rights of Hinds County residents. 

Shannon said HB 1020 is the Legislature’s way to address crime in Jackson

The defendants in the state lawsuit are Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Michael Randolph, who would be tasked with appointing four temporary judges to the Capitol Complex Improvement District Court; Hinds County Circuit Clerk Zack Wallace; and Greg Snowden, director of the state’s Administrative Office of Courts. 

On Wednesday, Judge Thomas approved a motion by the plaintiffs to add additional defendants: Gov. Reeves, Attorney General Lynn Fitch and the State of Mississippi. 

Randolph has asked to be dismissed as a defendant on the grounds of judicial immunity and to maintain conduct that prohibits him from making public comments on pending matters, said attorney Mark Nelson. 

Wallace also asked to be dismissed as a defendant because he has no role in the lawsuit and would distribute cases based on Supreme Court orders, said attorney Attorney Pieter Teeuwissen. 

Johnson said the plaintiffs sued defendants who would be responsible for implementing the law, such as the clerk who would assign cases, the Administrative Office of Courts who would provide staffing and set pay and the chief justice for appointing judges. 

Thomas is expected to rule this week whether to keep Randolph and Wallace as defendants and whether the attorney general’s office can dismiss the lawsuit. 

“Thank you for your patience, and I will try to do my best,” Thomas said at the end of the Wednesday hearing. 

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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.