Hinds judges denounce HB 1020 as ‘unconstitutional’, but legal expert says it would be difficult to overturn

Published: Jan. 31, 2023 at 7:06 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Sixteen judges who represent Hinds County united Tuesday behind a one-page statement vigorously opposing House Bill 1020, saying the creation of a separate district composed of appointed prosecutors and judges violates the Mississippi Constitution.

That statement says in part the legislation “carves out a new jurisdiction within the county and creates a self-governing court for all persons, businesses or government entities” within the Capitol Complex Improvement District...which the bill would also expand significantly.

Senior Circuit Judge Winston Kidd said the bill would disenfranchise Hinds County voters and take away powers of the judiciary, calling the bill “unacceptable.”

“Under the proposed bill, the elected judges would be prohibited from handling matters in a county and district within which we were elected. In simple terms, House Bill 1020 provides that responsibility that belongs to us, the elected judges, will be taken away and given to appointed judges,” Kidd said. “Some would say that more elected judges are needed to to justify this bill. I will suggest that the legislature can simply add additional judges to Hinds County, and those judges can be elected by the citizens of Hinds County. This is how it is done in every judicial district in this state.”

Mississippi School of Law Professor Matt Steffey said the most basic protection Mississippians can hope to get from the legislative process is to live under the same law.

“This ignores that particular injunction. We have a way statewide of selecting judges. That statewide way doesn’t apply here,” Steffey said. “We have a way statewide, of carving up the baseline general jurisdiction, circuit court judicial district. This doesn’t abide those general laws.”

That reduces accountability, Steffey added, with judges who are appointed by the Mississippi Supreme Court instead of elected, and prosecutors -- serving the equivalent role of a district attorney -- appointed by the Attorney General.

While it will almost certainly be challenged if it becomes law, HB 1020 would be difficult to overturn, the law professor said.

Critics have also said the legislation could violate the U.S. Constitution, but a federal case would have to prove race was a factor in the decision to draft that legislation, Steffey said.

“It’s not enough to say on its face, it looks like it has a tremendously discriminatory effect or impact. But anybody challenging it would have to prove the state legislature did it because of that impact, not in spite of or with indifference to that impact,” Steffey said.

Tuesday’s united front of county and circuit judges and chancellors remains tremendously significant, Steffey said, but it’s unclear whether that will sway legislators.

“It sends a powerful message. Whether it makes any difference in the end, we don’t know,” Steffey said.

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