What comes next for Mississippi’s Jackson court bill

The Mississippi legislation that critics have slammed as a “Jim Crow” bill has taken a turn after the state Senate passed it Tuesday with a couple of amendments that would both expand its scope and maintain a level of city government jurisdiction over Jackson.

City leaders and Democrats serving in the state legislature have fumed recently as the state House last month passed House Bill 1020, which was set to establish a separate court system for part of the city and grant the state-run Capitol Police the authority to patrol the area instead of the Jackson Police Department.

Supporters of the proposal have heralded it as a way to address rampant crime and an overrun court system in Jackson, but critics have said it calls back to the Jim Crow era, a period from the late-19th century to mid-20th century when state and local laws in the South enforced segregation and racial discrimination.

Opponents pointed out that the legislation established the court system mostly for the city’s white neighborhoods, which have the lowest crime levels of anywhere in Jackson. The state Senate’s actions Tuesday appear to be an attempt at addressing those concerns.

The amended bill that the Senate passed would expand the Capitol Police’s jurisdiction to include the entire city of Jackson. The House bill would have the Capitol Police only oversee a certain segment of the city but supplant Jackson police’s authority for that area.

Those who have objected to the House bill have also gone after its plan to let the chief justice of Mississippi Supreme Court appoint four judges to be responsible over four-year terms for overseeing this separate district. This plan would replace a process of choosing judges through election, which Jackson has done for years.

The Senate bill, which passed along party lines in a 34-15 vote, would have the chief justice temporarily appoint one judge to serve alongside the four elected judges for the Hinds County Circuit Court until December 2026, at which point Jackson constituents would elect a judge to that position.

Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba (D) has rebuked the House bill as amounting to apartheid and “plantation politics,” noting that it would give a white state official the responsibility to appoint judges who have jurisdiction in a predominantly Black city.

More than 80 percent of Jackson’s residents are Black, which means it has the highest percentage of Black residents of any major city in the United States, according to The Associated Press.

Lumumba has said the House bill is an “attack on Black leadership.” He argued that state lawmakers have ignored the requests that city leaders have made to address crime issues and are instead forcing their influence on the city. Some of these requests have included violence interruption training and ballistics technology to assist in investigations.

Some Democrats and local officials have indicated that the bill the state Senate passed is an improvement on the House version, but both are still unacceptable.

“It is vastly improved from where it started, but it is still a snake,” state Sen. John Horhn (D) reportedly said during debate over the Senate bill.

Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens testified before the state Senate Monday that the Senate’s proposal appears to give assistance to Jackson, but his office opposes both this version and the House one, USA Today reported.

Owens said he took issue with the Senate version not tackling the causes of the backlog in the legal system, which he said include a lack of funding for the public defender’s office, state crime laboratory and Jackson police.

Gail Lowery, the public defender for Hinds County, testified that her office’s attorneys make significantly less than those for the district attorney’s office because her office is funded by the county, while Owens’s office receives funding from the state, according to USA Today.

Lowery said she has not been asked what resources she needs.

“Nobody at this point has asked me or my staff any questions about what our real needs are or to paint a picture about what we’re struggling with to provide constitutional protections to the accused,” she said.

With the two bodies of the state legislature having passed separate bills, the approved Senate version is now heading back to the House for approval with its amendments. The House can either vote to pass the approved Senate version or move into conference with the state Senate to reconcile the differences between the two variations.

Jackson-based CBS affiliate WJTV reported that state Rep. Trey Lamar (R), who introduced the House bill, said he is prepared to collaborate with the Senate to work on the differences. He said he expects the bill will go to a conference process and hopes to have a final product to present to the legislature soon.

“We have met, and the governor is, like I think most everybody here, including Republicans and Democrats, regardless or in spite of what the national news is portraying, are in lockstep that we’d like to see a safer capital city,” he said.

Lamar has rejected claims that the bill has any racial motivation and said addressing crime in Jackson is his only goal.

The city saw a decrease in its homicide rate last year but still had the highest of any major city in the U.S.

Even if the House and Senate are able to work out the differences between their versions and Gov. Tate Reeves (R), who has denounced the crime rate in the city and Jackson’s leaders, signs it into law, the legislation could still face challenges from legal battles.

Jackson NBC affiliate WLBT reported that the NAACP and Legislative Black Caucus might file lawsuits against the bill if it becomes law.

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