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Un-elected judges are temporarily blocked in Jackson amid H.B. 1020 lawsuits

The NAACP celebrated on Friday, May 12, 2023, after a federal judge temporarily blocked the Mississippi Supreme Court chief justice from appointing state-court judges in Mississippi’s majority-Black Hinds County under H.B. 1020, saying, “We are prepared to fight for our freedom.” NAACP President Derrick Johnson, pictured, has said the law amounts to a “state takeover of Jackson.” Photo courtesy NAACP

The Mississippi Supreme Court’s chief justice will not be able to appoint four unelected state court judges to preside over Hinds County, the home of the majority-Black capital City of Jackson, after a federal judge temporarily blocked him from doing so on Friday, May 12. The appointments will remain blocked even though a state judge declined to block the law this morning.

The majority-white Mississippi Legislature mandated the appointments under House Bill 1020, which lawmakers passed and Gov. Tate Reeves signed into law earlier this year.

U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi Judge Henry T. Wingate said in a May 12 order that he blocked the H.B. 1020 appointments pending a May 22 hearing in order “to maintain the status quo and to avoid possible irreparable harm from any violation of constitutional rights to equal protection of the law.”

If not for the temporary order, House Bill 1020 would have allowed Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael K. Randolph, who is white, to begin appointing four state circuit court judges to hear cases in Hinds County starting May 9. Under the law, the circuit court judges would preside until at least 2026, hearing cases that judges elected by Hinds County’s majority-Black population would have otherwise handled.

The NAACP, which is leading the lawsuit, celebrated the decision on Friday.

“Thanks to an emergency motion we filed late last night, Chief Justice Randolph cannot begin any undemocratic court packing in Jackson until NAACP v. Reeves moves forward,” the organization tweeted. “We are prepared to fight for our freedom.”

A judge in a separate case in Hinds County Chancery Court declined to issue an injunction this morning. Three Hinds County plaintiffs argued in court that H.B. 1020 deprives them of the right to elect their own judges to handle local cases like residents in other counties.

“It is an affront to democracy,” the Associated Press quoted plaintiff Ann Saunders as saying during court last week.

Hinds County Chancery Judge Dewayne Thomas issued a ruling this morning in which he “determined that the appointment of special judges is a judicial act under Mississippi law and that the same is thereby entitled to judicial immunity.”

“In order for Plaintiffs to prevail in this action, they must demonstrate that HB1020 and Miss. §9-1-105(2) are in direct conflict with the ‘clear language of the constitution.’ … To invalidate these provisions, this Court must find beyond a reasonable doubt that the Mississippi Legislature acted outside its authority and that the same are in direct violation with the Mississippi Constitution,” he wrote.

But Thomas said he could not “find that Plaintiffs herein have proven unconstitutionality beyond a reasonable doubt” and that “the appointment of temporary special judges does not ‘dilute the power of the duly elected judges’ as posited by Plaintiffs.”

“Each elected permanent Circuit Court Judge in Hinds County will retain exactly the powers he or she enjoyed prior to the enactment of the challenged laws,” he wrote. “The appointment of temporary special judges will not impede or interfere with the full powers and authority that each of the elected permanent Circuit Court Judges in Hinds County enjoyed prior to the enactment of the challenged provisions.”


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