U.S. Justice Dept throws weight behind NAACP case over Jackson, Mississippi, court overhaul

(Reuters) – The Biden administration has made perhaps its most significant intervention yet against conservative efforts to limit the democratic power of Black people.

The U.S. Justice Department on July 12 filed court documents to intervene in a lawsuit challenging laws enacted by the Mississippi legislature’s nearly all-white supermajority that created separate, state-controlled police and court systems in Jackson, one of the Blackest major cities in America.

The lawsuit filed on April 21 by the NAACP alleges that Mississippi’s laws are intentionally discriminatory against Black Jacksonians, who account for about 80% of the city’s 153,000 residents.

H.B. 1020 established a new court system in Hinds County. Judges and prosecutors will be appointed by conservative, statewide officials rather than elected locally, and they aren’t required to be county residents. The NAACP’s lawsuit also challenges another statute, S.B. 2343, which expanded the state-run Capitol Police force’s jurisdiction throughout Jackson.

The DOJ’s complaint is focused on H.B. 1020, and reiterates the NAACP’s allegations that the law amounts to intentional discrimination in violation of the Equal Protection Clause.

The Justice Department’s intervention in Mississippi represents the Biden administration stepping into the fray of a national battle in which the federal government cannot truly afford to remain neutral.

Mississippi’s new laws are far from being the only recent policies that seem “specifically designed to undermine the historical power of Black residents” and other minority groups to “self-govern,” as the Justice Department said in its lawsuit.

Rep. Trey Lamar, who introduced the Mississippi bill, didn’t respond to requests for comment. He has said the laws are meant to address rising crime and backlogged courts.

Representatives in Governor Tate Reeves’ office also didn’t respond to my inquiries.

Mississippi’s new laws parallel recent moves by Republicans around the country that undermine democratic institutions, often in majority-minority or Democrat-led communities.

That includes redrawing electoral districts to effectively disqualify Black candidates and incumbents, the unprecedented expulsion of two Black Democrats from the Tennessee House in April, and a bill enacted in Georgia in May that makes it easier to remove “woke prosecutors.”

The Justice Department’s complaint seeks to prevent the creation of an unelected court system unique to Jackson. The DOJ asked the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi to block portions of the bill that empower the state’s chief justice and attorney general to make appointments for the new judgeships and prosecutors’ offices in Jackson.

A win for the federal government would make clear that officials violate the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause when they take actions that shift or strip away local democratic control specifically from Black and other minority communities.

Makani Themba, an organizer in Mississippi and chief strategist at Higher Ground Change Strategies, told me the DOJ’s participation is necessary and welcome because federal intervention has often been essential “to ensure the most basic of rights” in Mississippi.

For example, Congressional investigative committees opened an investigation last October into how Mississippi spent millions in funding provided to the state following a crisis in Jackson that left thousands without running water in August 2022.

Themba added that Republicans push the narrative that the city is incompetently managed “as a smokescreen for inequitable allocation,” and to “punish Jackson for being a city with agency and leaders who have a national voice.” (Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, a progressive lawyer and son of a radical Black activist who also served as mayor, was elected in 2017).

The new laws were enacted in April despite the most forceful possible opposition from virtually all of Mississippi’s Black representatives and senators and the mostly-Black leadership of Jackson, including its police chief, prosecutor and public defender’s offices, and its judges, the mayor and city council.

The Justice Department declined to comment, citing the active litigation.

According to the DOJ’s lawsuit, the new law is part of a system in Mississippi that “has shortchanged Hinds County’s criminal justice system” for decades, and has now decided to compound that problem.

Under H.B. 1020, people in Jackson can be arrested, charged, and tried by white, state-appointed officials who are entirely unaccountable to the predominantly-Black residents, the Justice Department said. That isn’t possible in any other county in Mississippi.

Moreover, at least half the judges on Hinds County’s circuit court will be appointed by statewide officials, unlike every other jurisdiction in Mississippi.

The context in which the law was enacted is also telling.

Mississippi’s legislature is almost entirely racially polarized, as was voting over the measures.

All of the state’s 112 Republican senators and representatives are white, and all but four of 58 Democrats are Black, the New York Times reported in February.

Each of the 34 Senate votes approving the measure came from a white member; all but one of the nay votes came from Black senators (all 14 Black senators voted against), the DOJ said.

The bill passed in a “sequence of events that deliberately excluded Black participation,” from failing to consult voters and local officials, to failing to properly share the bill language with the lone Black member of a committee that considered it, the DOJ said.

Moreover, lawmakers disregarded a slew of reasonable, less-controversial options, like increasing funding and staff for Jackson’s existing criminal justice system, the DOJ said. In fact, the legislature has declined to fully fund Hinds County’s courts and police on multiple occasions, while increasing the number of elected judges in at least eight majority-white districts, the Justice Department pointed out.

Black officials and lawmakers in Mississippi and Jackson have called the measure a “racist bill,” likened statehouse debates to being at a Klan rally, and compared the policies with colonization and apartheid.

That strong, continued opposition to the fundamental unfairness of the new laws demand the federal government’s participation in the suit.

Reporting by Hassan Kanu; editing by Leigh Jones

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias.

Thomson Reuters

Hassan Kanu writes about access to justice, race, and equality under law. Kanu, who was born in Sierra Leone and grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, worked in public interest law after graduating from Duke University School of Law. After that, he spent five years reporting on mostly employment law. He lives in Washington, D.C. Reach Kanu at hassan.kanu@thomsonreuters.com

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