UNITED STATES NEWS

‘A circus’: Mississippi Supreme Court Justice decries efforts to keep him in lawsuit

Jun 14, 2023, 6:03 PM

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — In a rare address to a federal court Wednesday, Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike Randolph called efforts to attach him to a lawsuit challenging a new state law a “circus” with “no legal precedent in U.S. history.”

Randolph was named a defendant in the lawsuit challenging House Bill 1020. The legislation was signed into law by Republican Gov. Tate Reeves in April. The new state law, which U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate has temporarily prevented from taking effect, expands the state’s role in courts and policing in Jackson.

Speaking before Wingate, Randolph said Wednesday was the first day in over 19 years that he addressed a courtroom from the podium rather than from the judge’s bench.

“I have never seen a circus like this one,” Randolph said. “I can’t find a case in U.S. history like this.”

The lawsuit, filed by the national, state and local chapters of the NAACP, says “separate and unequal policing” will return to Mississippi’s majority-Black capital under the state-run police department whose territory would widen under the new state law. The law also creates a new court in part of Jackson with a judge appointed by Randolph and requires him to appoint four temporary judges to serve with the four elected judges in the area’s circuit court.

Randolph said it is unprecedented for a state supreme court chief justice to be sued in a constitutional challenge to a state law.

In a June 2 ruling, Wingate said Randolph could not be sued over the state law, removing him as a defendant in the lawsuit. Wingate cited the principle of judicial immunity, which prevents judges from being sued for most of their official acts.

Attorneys for the NAACP argued Wednesday that Wingate should remain in the lawsuit as a “nominal party.” That could mean Randolph would remain in the suit even though he has no interest in its result.

Reeves and legislative leaders said the law is intended to help curb crime. But, the NAACP and other critics say the creation of a new court and the appointment of judges by a white chief justice is a way for the majority-white and Republican-led Legislature to wrest local control from residents of Jackson and Hinds county, which are both majority-Black and governed by Democrats.

After leaving the podium in federal court Wednesday, Randolph distributed documents to reporters that he said were photocopied letters and text messages from state judges. In the messages, the judges, some from Hinds County, thank Randolph for appointing special judges to reduce case backlogs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Randolph said the letters show he would not discriminate against a county when appointing judges.

On Wednesday, Wingate also considered arguments about whether to consolidate the lawsuit over House Bill 1020 with a different lawsuit over another state law passed in 2023. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the Mississippi Poor People’s Campaign and several other organizations, says Senate Bill 2343 will restrict free speech by requiring people to obtain permission from state law enforcement officials for any protest near state buildings.

The NAACP lawsuit against House Bill 1020 claims the law is racially discriminatory under the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. The lawsuit against Senate Bill 2343 says the law violates the First Amendment’s free speech protections.

___

Michael Goldberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mikergoldberg.

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‘A circus’: Mississippi Supreme Court Justice decries efforts to keep him in lawsuit