Attorney Cliff Johnson (center) presents his case before the Mississippi Supreme Court, Thursday, July 6, 2023 in Jackson. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Mississippi Supreme Court Justices heard arguments Thursday that will help them decide the constitutionality of House Bill 1020 – the controversial law that places appointed judges in Hinds County and sets up a separate court system within Jackson. 

Attorneys for a lawsuit challenging HB 1020 say it violates the Mississippi Constitution by preventing county residents from electing circuit court judges, and that the Capitol Complex Improvement District court created by the law doesn’t meet constitutional requirements. 

The state’s attorneys say no constitutional issues exist and that a lower court’s ruling dismissing the lawsuit should stand. 

“This simply boils down to policy disagreement,” said Solicitor General Scott Stewart, who is representing the attorney general and governor.  

Cliff Johnson, an attorney for the appellants from the MacArthur Justice Center, said there are limited exceptions of when circuit court judges are not elected by the people, such as when the governor appoints someone if the judge is disqualified or unable to serve. 

He argued that state statute has been used to appoint judges, including during the COVID-19 pandemic, but appointing temporary judges alongside elected ones in Hinds County is not constitutional. 

Solicitor General Scott Stewart, who is representing the attorney general and governor. pleads his case regarding HB1020 before the Mississippi Supreme Court, Thursday, July 6, 2023 in Jackson. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Stewart said an appointed judge is not the same as an elected circuit judge, so they don’t have to be elected nor do they receive the same protections given to circuit court judges. 

HB 1020 has been discussed as a response to addressing a court backlog in Hinds County, but Johnson said the law makes no claim that a crowded docket exists. Regardless, the reason for the law doesn’t matter because the circumstances don’t justify the actions the Legislature is taking – even in an emergency situation. 

“This is exactly the type of situation we should be careful of,” Johnson said. 

He noted that the Legislature can address an overcrowded docket without violating the constitution and taking away Hinds County residents’ ability to elect judges, such as by adding elected judges or having the county court help. The Supreme Court can also play a role, Johnson said. 

Attorney Cliff Johnson speaks to the media after presenting his case regarding HB1020 before the Mississippi Supreme Court, Thursday, July 6, 2023 in Jackson. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

A “far reaching” implication for siding with the state would be taking power away from Hinds County voters and giving it to the Legislature, Johnson said, and he wondered what precedent would be set for its ability to approve appointed judges in other circumstances. 

Another topic raised during oral arguments was about the legitimacy of the Capitol Complex Improvement District court. 

State constitution places limits on inferior courts created by the Legislature, including requirements that the court be supervised by another and they have the ability to appeal, which the appellants argue is not the case for the CCID court. 

Stewart argued the CCID court resembles a municipal court and meets constitutional requirements, including the ability to appeal. 

Justice James Kitchens asked where in HB 1020’s language does it address that the CCID court has appealability, and Stewart replied that existing state law for municipal courts grants the right for appeals to the county court. 

Kitchens asked whether municipal courts currently operate like the CCID court, including having the power to send people charged with misdemeanors to the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility. 

Justice David Ishee, a former municipal judge, said the requirement is for the court to sentence those charged with misdemeanors to a county jail. 

Absent from the oral arguments was Chief Justice Michael Randolph, who recused himself Monday from the appeal because he is a named party in the lawsuit. 

HB 1020 directs Randolph to appoint four judges to a Capitol Complex Improvement District court within the Hinds County circuit court. The law was set to go into effect July 1, but it has been paused in another lawsuit in federal court. 

Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

During oral arguments, his attorney Mark Nelson said the chief justice’s only interest is to protect his office and the court as an institution. 

Nelson said Hinds Chancery Judge Dewayne Thomas and U.S. District Court Judge Henry Wingate were correct to remove Randolph from the lawsuit being appealed and a separate federal one on the basis of judicial immunity, which is the idea that judges can’t be sued for doing their jobs. 

Nelson said appointments are a judicial act covered by immunity. Stewart, the attorney for the state, told the justices to think about the consequences of their ruling, which could mean that the chief justice can’t make any appointments and that past ones could be ruled invalid. 

Johnson said the judicial immunity doctrine applies to protection from liability for monetary damages, but not for lawsuits seeking prospective relief such as declaratory or injunctive relief. 

Dorothy Triplett, one of the three Jackson women who are appellants in the case, said today was the first time she had ever visited the Mississippi Supreme Court, and she didn’t expect the lawsuit she joined to go so far. 

“I just know I believe in the right to vote and elect judges as stated in the constitution,” she said after the oral arguments. 

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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.