Judge extends restraining order blocking provisions of 1020

Published: May. 22, 2023 at 8:24 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - A federal judge took the Hinds County Circuit Court to task Monday during oral arguments in a case that could help shape the court’s future through 2026.

On Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Henry Wingate heard arguments in a constitutional challenge to H.B. 1020.

At the heart of the matter is a provision of the bill that require the chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court to appoint an additional four judges to the Hinds County Circuit Court to serve through 2026.

The NAACP calls the law an example of court-packing designed to strip Jackson residents of the right to select their own judges.

The civil rights group also is opposed to the creation of an inferior court to handle cases in the Capitol Complex Improvement District. That court‘s judge also would be appointed by the chief justice.

However, the state argues the bill is needed to help address violent crime in the capital city, as well as a backlog of criminal and civil cases currently pending in the circuit court.

Wingate extended a temporary restraining order to block the implementation of the law until additional arguments can be held.

NAACP plans to file for a preliminary injunction in the case later this week. Oral arguments on that likely will be held in mid-June.

Wingate also held off on a motion to remove Chief Justice Mike Randolph from the case, saying he would make decision on that request by next Monday at the latest.

Even so, the federal judge raised his own concerns with the Hinds County Circuit Court, saying criminal records obtained from the county are often incomplete.

“So much so that I subpoenaed... the court administrator from Hinds County to explain to me why it was,” he said.

Wingate referred to one case where a defendant had been arrested at least 15 times, but there was no record where he ever went to trial.

“A number of cases from Hinds County have the same problem,” he said. “It’s almost understood when we pick up these pre-sentence investigation reports and look at the criminal backgrounds coming from Hinds County, we’re not going to have the full report.”

The judge’s comments came as attorneys argued whether Wingate should temporarily block 1020′s judicial appointments from going into effect.

Carroll Rhodes, an attorney for the NAACP, argued the appointments should be because they violate the Mississippi State Constitution.

“Mississippi has a long history of electing its circuit court judges. The only time Mississippi switched from electing circuit court judges was during the same period - Reconstruction and the Constitution of 1868 - which provided for the appointment,” he said.

“The Constitution of 1890 restored the ability of voters to elect the judges who would preside over them.”

Rhodes went on to say the appointments are based on race, and that the majority of judges that have been temporarily brought in to help addresses backlogs in the county have been white.

Hinds County is Mississippi’s most populous county, with nearly 218,000 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The population is 73.5 percent Black.

Voters have not elected a white circuit judge since 2018. However, several appointments made to the court by the chief justice since then have been white.

“The constitution says all judges should be elected. Why does the legislature single out the most populous county, 70 percent Black, that elects just Black judges since 2018?” Rhodes asked. “The basis of the plaintiff’s claim is they’re being treated different than voters in other parts of the state.”

Rex Shannon, an attorney for the state, countered, saying 1020 is not about race, but about crime.

“The driving impetus of 1020 is to provide additional resources to address public safety concerns and address the backlog criminal docket in Hinds County,” he said.

He argued the state has a vested interest in addressing crime in the capital city, pointing to the numerous state resources it has there, including medical facilities, tourist attractions and state agency headquarters.

“Jackson is the state’s largest city, truly our only big city. The tri-county is the largest metro area in the state,” he said. “No doubt, with the multitude of problems people who live and work in Jackson have to deal with... the most troubling issue is the surge in violent crime.”

WLBT figures show 2021 and 2022 were record years for homicides in Jackson, with 160 and 138 reported respectively. So far in 2023, 37 have been reported.

“It affects residents in Jackson and Hinds County, people who commute each day to work, people who travel here to visit the state capitol to seek medical care, to shop, to take advantage of our cultural attractions,” Shannon continued. “All of these attributes make Hinds County unique and puts the state in a position where the legislature has to take action.”

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