Judge dismisses Jackson residents’ challenge to H.B. 1020

Published: May. 15, 2023 at 11:55 AM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - A Hinds County Chancery Court judge has tossed out three residents’ constitutional challenge to H.B. 1020.

On Monday, Chancellor Dewayne Thomas approved a motion to dismiss the suit brought against the state and denied all injunctive relief sought by the plaintiffs.

The suit was filed by the ACLU and the MacArthur Justice Center on behalf of Ann Saunders, Sabreen Sharrief and Dorothy Triplett, who argued provisions of the controversial legislation would violate Jackson residents’ rights to elected representation on the courts.

Officials with the ACLU and Cliff Johnson, Director of the MacArthur Justice Center, said in a statement that they will appeal the decision, as well as Thomas’ decision last week that grants judicial immunity to Justice Michael Randolph.

“The plain language of the Mississippi Constitution demands that circuit court judges be elected and does not permit the four judicial appointments,” ACLU wrote. “The three Jackson... residents challenging H.B. 1020 in state court are deeply disappointed by Judge Thomas’ ruling and are prepared to take their fight to the Mississippi Supreme Court.”

“Our team has already met,” said Johnson. “We’ve spoken with our plaintiffs. We’ll be filing our notice of appeal first thing in the morning, asking the (Mississippi Supreme) Court to take this matter on asking for an expedited schedule so we can get in front of the court as soon as possible. The effective date for House Bill 1020 is July first. We want to get these issues briefed properly and have oral argument before the court in plenty of time for the Mississippi Supreme Court to make a decision it needs to make on these ultimate issues.”

H.B. 1020 would mandate the chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court appoint four additional circuit judges to the Hinds County Circuit Court. The bill also called for the creation of a special court to hear misdemeanor cases that originate in the Capitol Complex Improvement District.

Thomas, who previously came out in opposition to the original version of 1020 introduced during the 2023 legislative session, said he understands the plaintiffs’ concerns, but said their arguments did not prove the measure was unconstitutional.

“A party seeking to have a statute declared unconstitutional in Mississippi has a heavy burden: he must prove that the statute is unconstitutional ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’ This court’s consideration of H.B. 1020... is extremely limited in this action. This court may not consider whether the act is proper or improper, beneficial or detrimental, wise or unwise.”

Thomas signed a public statement along with other Hinds County judges challenging the constitutionality of the original legislation and disclosed his friendships with certain parties and attorneys involved, he said in his order. Parties in the case submitted documents saying they did not seek Thomas’ disqualification or recusal from the case.

Thomas also said he could not rule on the alleged motives behind the legislation, despite his own concerns with the bill.

“Mississippi law is clear that his court may not consider the motivation for the legislation or its policy,” he wrote. “This chancellor must restrain his consideration... to the limited inquiry of whether this court can find, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the provisions violate the Mississippi Constitution.”

Plaintiffs were concerned, in part, that the additional judges allowed under 1020 would dilute the power of the county’s existing circuit judges.

They also argued that the judges would be presiding over cases in Hinds County without having to live in the area or be answerable to the county’s voters.

Plaintiffs also challenged the constitutionality of existing state law that allows the chief justice to appoint temporary judges to the bench to help in emergencies, such as with the backlog of criminal and civil cases created during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s kind of bullying us in a way and saying you’re not capable of electing judges,” plaintiff Dorothy Triplett said. “So, we have to name them for you.”

News releases available on the Administrative Office of Courts website shows that chief justices have appointed special judges in Hinds County for years, at least dating back to 2006. In 2022, four judges were appointed to help handle the COVID-19 backlog.

Thomas ruled the additional judges would not dilute the power of existing circuit judges, saying the existing elected judges “will retain exactly the powers that he or she enjoyed prior to the enactment of the challenged laws.”

He also said that the judges under 1020 would only be appointed on an emergency basis to help whittle down an “overcrowded docket.”

Gov. Tate Reeves signed H.B. 1020 last month. Under provisions of the measure, the chief justice was required to appoint four additional circuit judges to the Hinds County bench by May 8.

“The overwhelming majority of our fellow Mississippians - both inside and outside our capital city - want Jackson to be a thriving community that attracts new investment, new jobs and more residents,” Reeves said in a statement on social media Monday. “Adding more... police, more prosecuting attorneys, more public defenders, and an inferior court will complement the efforts of the others.”

The suit was filed on April 24 and a temporary injunction was put in place to block the appointments until a hearing could be held.

Plaintiffs also were concerned about the creation of an inferior court referenced by Reeves to handle cases like traffic violations that originated in the CCID.

The CCID is the Capitol Complex Improvement District, which takes in a large swath of the capital city. The district was initially set up as part of a mechanism to provide Jackson with additional funds for infrastructure and beautification work.

However, the new court will have the ability to handle cases there that would normally have gone to the city’s municipal court.

Thomas also said the inferior court was not unconstitutional, saying in his order that courts are created by state statute and that cases heard there could be appealed to the county and circuit.

“This chancellor is keenly aware of the plaintiffs’ expressed feeling regarding the appointment of special circuit court judges and the creation of a CCID court,” Thomas wrote. “However, disappointment and frustration with the legislative process does not create a judicial right to relief.”

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