After Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves signed legislation creating a special judicial district within the city of Jackson where judges would be appointed rather than elected – and ultimately disenfranchise Black voters – the Southern Poverty Law Center filed an amicus brief supporting a lawsuit by other advocacy groups challenging the action as a violation of the state constitution.
The legislation, known as HB 1020, carved out the special judicial district within a largely white and affluent part of the city, which is 83% Black. It also allowed for the appointment – rather than the election – of four judges to the Hinds County Circuit Court by the chief justice of the state Supreme Court. What’s more, the four judges, unlike elected judges, could reside outside Hinds County, which is 74% Black.
The SPLC and Mississippi Votes, a nonprofit voter registration and civic engagement organization; and Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP filed the amicus brief on June 13, 2023, after the lawsuit challenging HB 1020 was appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court.
The brief describes how the appointment of the four judges violates the state constitution, which requires the election of circuit court judges. It notes that the judges for the special judicial district are not temporary or “special judges,” who might be appointed, but are judges with all the powers of an elected circuit court judge serving for almost the same length of time.
By creating unelected de facto circuit court judges, which usurps the power of elected judges and dilutes their role on the court, HB 1020 violates the separation of powers in the state, the brief argues. It also describes how legal precedents from other states have found similar statutes in violation of those state constitutions.
The Supreme Court of Mississippi’s ruling agreed that the appointment of the “special circuit judges” was unconstitutional. The justices noted that they saw “nothing special or unique” about the judges – “certainly nothing expressly tethering them to a specific judicial need or exigency.”