Miss. bill would create another court system in part of Jackson. Critics say it disenfranchises Black voters.
The bill’s sponsor, Republican state Rep. Trey Lamar, says he introduced it in an effort to address the crime surge in Jackson and the judicial backlog.
Mississippi state lawmakers are considering a controversial bill that would create a court system of unelected judges and prosecutors in part of the city of Jackson — a proposal that critics are calling an unlawful attempt to disenfranchise voters in the nation’s Blackest city.
On Feb. 7, after hours of debate, the Mississippi House passed House Bill 1020, which would create a court system in the Capitol Complex Improvement District, a smaller portion of the city of Jackson, the state’s capital, that was created in 2017 in a bipartisan effort and includes the state Capitol building complex, numerous state facilities and properties.
“It feels like somebody picked up the pen and drew a district to encompass the Capitol and white Jackson,” Matthew Steffey, a law professor at Mississippi College School of Law, told Yahoo News.
On a national level, it is not uncommon for judges and prosecutors to be appointed. “But what makes this Mississippi situation abnormal is that the Legislature is proposing a different way of selecting prosecutors and judges, but only for one area of the state,” Chris Bonneau, professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh, told Yahoo News. “And all the local representatives from that area object to it.”
Steffey said he could not recall such a proposal being made in the state before. “There's very little that’s truly unprecedented,” he said. “But I can’t remember anything like this being done in the state of Mississippi.”
Jackson’s population is over 80% Black, and advocates say the Republican-backed bill would strip the city of its voting rights and give government officials the power to fill positions.
“This bill does not do anything good for the city of Jackson. It only divides us. It is a disinvestment of the black vote, to disenfranchise the black vote,” Democratic state Rep. Christopher Bell, who represents District 65, which includes Jackson, told Yahoo News. “The bill has total disregard for the elected officials out of the city of Jackson [and] Hinds County. The author of the bill did not talk to any of us about the legislation.”
The proposal comes as voting rights for minority voters remain a critical issue at both the local and national levels, particularly after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Act in 2013.
Republican state Rep. Trey Lamar of Senatobia, who lives more than 150 miles from the Capitol, says he introduced the bill in an effort to address the crime surge in Jackson and the judicial backlog.
“The city of Jackson does not just belong to the citizens of Jackson; it is Mississippi’s capital city. And it belongs to the state of Mississippi, to the people of Mississippi,” Lamar told Yahoo News. “The city has failed leadership over the water system, the sewer system, and the crime rate has spiraled out of control.”
In 2020, Jackson’s crime rate was more than 2.5 times the national average. And in 2021, the city had a murder rate of 99.54 per 100,000 and became known as the murder capital of the U.S.
“We all need to be proud, and right now and over the last several years, the city of Jackson has not been something that we can be proud of,” Lamar said.
Lamar says the bill will help the city address thousands of judicial cases that are on backlog, provide another avenue for indictments and expand the authority of the Capitol police.
“We're just trying to beef up and add to the judicial resources in Jackson,” he said. “And by adding additional law enforcement inside the CCID, we are assisting the Jackson Police Department, because now they have brothers and sisters on the streets with them helping them fight the crime.”
The Mississippi House overwhelmingly approved the bill, 76-38, but it received support from only one member of the Jackson delegation, the Mississippi Clarion Ledger reported.
“Only in Mississippi would we have a bill like this ... where we say solving the problem requires removing the vote from Black people,” Democratic Rep. Ed Blackmon said during the House vote.
Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens also disagrees with the legislation. “Instead of permanently investing these resources, House Bill 1020 will create a separate criminal justice system with no input from the citizens of Hinds County. To take this monumental step backwards removes self-government and minimizes the voices of our citizens,” Owen’s office said in a statement to the Mississippi Free Press.
Jarvis Dortch, executive director of the ACLU of Mississippi, said the bill will create “a city within a city, so that the white majority can gain control.”
“They’re trying to bypass the voting rights of the rest of Jackson by going through the Mississippi Legislature and getting their own city built and getting power over how everything is done within their area of town,” he added.
Mississippi is home to a history filled with racial discrimination. “We’re not that far removed from Jim Crow,” Dortch said.
Additionally, the capital city is enduring an ongoing water crisis that left over 150,000 Jacksonians without clean drinking water in 2022.
But Lamar says race is not a factor in the bill. “Most of the people that I talk to, whether they [are] from Jackson or other parts of the state, whether they [are] African American, Caucasian — they all want to be able to turn the faucet on and have clean water come out. They want to be able to flush their toilets. And they want to be able to walk to their mailbox without fear of their life. And so we’re trying to help the city of Jackson,” he said.
Vangela Wade, president of the Mississippi Center for Justice, said the bill, if it becomes law, will affect relationships socially and economically and create racial animosity within the capital city.
“I think this is probably redlining on steroids,” Wade told Yahoo News. “If you had a copy of the map that would show the Capitol Complex Improvement District, you would see that it includes the majority of the areas where white residents reside.”
Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said the bill “reminds me of apartheid” and that the legislation is an effort to “colonize Jackson.”
Now the bill is headed to the Senate, which will decide if it moves forward. “It is racism at its best. It’s unconstitutional, and it should not go forward. This legislation should die,” Bell said.
Civil rights advocates say the legislation will face challenges and legal scrutiny along the way. “You’re going to see boycotts, you’re going to see protests,” Dortch said. “Businesses looking to develop in this city or even in this state, you’re not going to want to be a part of something that’s been labeled an apartheid state, that’s not good for business.”