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Only in Mississippi

White representatives vote to create white-appointed court system for Blackest city in America

Rep. Kathy Sykes, D-Jackson, left, asks Rep. Trey Lamar, R-Senatobia, a question concerning infrastructure during a special session of the Legislature at the Capitol in Jackson Monday, August 27, 2018.,Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

A white supermajority of the Mississippi House voted after an intense, four-plus hour debate to create a separate court system and an expanded police force within the city of Jackson — the Blackest city in America — that would be appointed completely by white state officials.

If House Bill 1020 becomes law later this session, the white chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court would appoint two judges to oversee a new district within the city — one that includes all of the city’s majority-white neighborhoods, among other areas. The white state attorney general would appoint four prosecutors, a court clerk, and four public defenders for the new district. The white state public safety commissioner would oversee an expanded Capitol Police force, run currently by a white chief.

The appointments by state officials would occur in lieu of judges and prosecutors being elected by the local residents of Jackson and Hinds County — as is the case in every other municipality and county in the state.

Mississippi’s capital city is 80% Black and home to a higher percentage of Black residents than any major American city. Mississippi’s Legislature is thoroughly controlled by white Republicans, who have redrawn districts over the past 30 years to ensure they can pass any bill without a single Democratic vote. Every legislative Republican is white, and most Democrats are Black.

After thorough and passionate dissent from Black members of the House, the bill passed 76-38 Tuesday primarily along party lines. Two Black member of the House — Rep. Cedric Burnett, a Democrat from Tunica, and Angela Cockerham, an independent from Magnolia — voted for the measure. All but one lawmaker representing the city of Jackson — Rep. Shanda Yates, a white independent — opposed the bill.

“Only in Mississippi would we have a bill like this … where we say solving the problem requires removing the vote from Black people,” Rep. Ed Blackmon, a Democrat from Canton, said while pleading with his colleagues to oppose the measure.

For most of the debate, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba — who has been publicly chided by the white Republicans who lead the Legislature — looked down on the House chamber from the gallery. Lumumba accused the Legislature earlier this year of practicing “plantation politics” in terms of its treatment of Jackson, and of the bill that passed Tuesday, he said: “It reminds me of apartheid.”

Hinds County Circuit Judge Adrienne Wooten, who served in the House before being elected judge and would be one of the existing judges to lose jurisdiction under this House proposal, also watched the debate.

Public Safety Commissioner Sean Tindell, who oversees the Capitol Police, watched a portion of the debate from the House gallery, chuckling at times when Democrats made impassioned points about the bill. Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, the only statewide elected official who owns a house in Jackson, walked onto the House floor shortly before the final vote.

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Rep. Blackmon, a civil rights leader who has a decades-long history of championing voting issues, equated the current legislation to the Jim Crow-era 1890 Constitution that was written to strip voting rights from Black Mississippians.

“This is just like the 1890 Constitution all over again,” Blackmon said from the floor. “We are doing exactly what they said they were doing back then: ‘Helping those people because they can’t govern themselves.'”

The bill was authored by Rep. Trey Lamar, a Republican whose hometown of Senatobia is 172 miles north of Jackson. It was sent to Lamar’s committee by Speaker Philip Gunn instead of a House Judiciary Committee, where similar legislation normally would be heard.

“This bill is designed to make our capital city of Jackson, Mississippi, a safer place,” Lamar said, citing numerous news sources who have covered Jackson’s high crime rates. Dwelling on a long backlog of Hinds County court cases, Lamar said the bill was designed to “help not hinder the (Hinds County) court system.”

“My constituents want to feel safe when they come here,” Lamar said, adding the capital city belonged to all the citizens of the state. “Where I am coming from with this bill is to help the citizens of Jackson and Hinds County.”

Many House members who represent Jackson on Tuesday said they were never consulted by House leadership about the bill. Several times during the debate, they pointed out that Republican leaders have never proposed increasing the number of elected judges to address a backlog of cases or increasing state funding to assist an overloaded Jackson Police Department.

In earlier sessions, the Legislature created the Capitol Complex Improvement District, which covers much of the downtown, including the state government office complex and other areas of Jackson. The bill would extend the existing district south to Highway 80, north to County Line Road, west to State Street and east to the Pearl River. Between 40,000 and 50,000 people live within the area.

Opponents of the legislation, dozens of whom have protested at the Capitol several days this year, accused the authors of carving out mostly white, affluent areas of the city to be put in the new district.

The bill would double the funding for the district to $20 million in order to increase the size of the existing Capitol Police force, which has received broad criticism from Jacksonians for shooting several people in recent months with little accountability.

The new court system laid out in House Bill 1020 is estimated to cost $1.6 million annually.

Democratic members of the House said if they wanted to help with the crime problem, the Legislature could increase the number of elected judges in Hinds County. Blackmon said Hinds County was provided four judges in 1992 when a major redistricting occurred, and that number has not increased since then even as the caseload for the four judges has exploded.

In addition, Blackmon said the number of assistant prosecuting attorneys could be increased within Hinds County. In Lamar’s bill, the prosecuting of cases within the district would be conducted by attorneys in the office of Attorney General Lynn Fitch, who is white.

Blackmon said the bill was “about a land grab,” not about fighting crime. He said other municipalities in the state had higher crime rates than Jackson. Blackmon asked why the bill would give the appointed judges the authority to hear civil cases that had nothing to do with crime.

“When Jackson becomes the No. 1 place for murder, we have a problem,” Lamar responded, highlighting the city’s long backlog of court cases. Several Democrats, during the debate, pointed out that the state of Mississippi’s crime lab has a lengthy backlog, as well, adding to the difficult in closing cases in Hinds County.

Lamar said the Mississippi Constitution gives the Legislature the authority to create “inferior courts,” as the Capitol Complex system would be. The decisions of the appointed judges can be appealed to Hinds County Circuit Court.

Democrats offered seven amendments, including one to make the judges elected. All were defeated primarily along partisan and racial lines.

“We are not incompetent,” said Rep. Chris Bell, D-Jackson. “Our judges are not incompetent.”

An amendment offered by Rep. Cheikh Taylor, D-Starkville, to require the Capitol Police to wear body cameras was approved. Lamar voiced support for the amendment.

Much of the debate centered around the issue of creating a court where the Black majority in Hinds County would not be allowed to vote on judges.

One amendment that was defeated would require the appointed judges to come from Hinds County. Lamar said by allowing the judges to come from areas other than Hinds County would ensure “the best and brightest” could serve. Black legislators said the comment implied that he judges and other court staff could not be found within the Black majority population of Hinds County.

When asked why he could not add more elected judges to Hinds County rather than appointing judges to the new district, Lamar said, “This is the bill that is before the body.”

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