Mississippi high court will hear case about appointing judges in majority-Black capital city

Jul 5, 2023, 10:34 AM

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The Mississippi Supreme Court will hear an appeal Thursday as some Jackson residents try to revive one of the lawsuits challenging the appointment, rather than the election, of some judges in the capital city — and the top justice will not take part in the hearing.

Chief Justice Mike Randolph has recused himself from considering the appeal because he said he does not want to prolong the case.

The Jackson residents originally named Randolph as a defendant in the lawsuit because the chief justice is required to appoint five judges, under the law that the suit is trying to block.

Randolph objected to being sued, and a chancery court judge removed him as a defendant. In Randolph’s recusal order on the appeal, he wrote Monday that he is neutral about the constitutionality of the law, which is the central issue in the lawsuit.

“But absent recusal, the Chief Justice’s participation risks prolonging the ‘circus’ and allowing a sideshow to overshadow the center-ring attraction,” Randolph wrote.

He wrote that his decision to step aside on this appeal should not encourage lawyers to sue judges.

“Just suing a judge does not mandate his recusal,” Randolph wrote.

The Legislature passed a bill this year to expand the territory of the state-run Capitol Police department inside Jackson. The bill, signed into law by Republican Gov. Tate Reeves, also creates a new court inside Jackson with a judge appointed by the chief justice. And it requires the chief justice to appoint four judges to serve alongside the four elected circuit court judges in Hinds County, where Jackson is located.

Most judges in Mississippi are elected, and opponents of the new law say the majority-white and Republican-controlled Legislature is usurping local autonomy in Jackson and Hinds County, which are both majority-black and governed by Democrats. Supporters of the new law say they are trying to improve public safety.

In May, Hinds County Chancery Judge Dewayne Thomas dismissed the lawsuit days after he removed Randolph as a defendant. Thomas wrote that the appointment of judges does not violate the Mississippi Constitution.

The plaintiffs are asking the Mississippi Supreme Court to overturn Thomas’ order and revive their lawsuit.

A separate lawsuit filed by the NAACP challenges the appointment of judges and the expansion of the state police role in Jackson, arguing that the law creates “separate and unequal policing” for the city compared to other parts of Mississippi. U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate has temporarily put the law on hold, and he also removed Randolph as a defendant in the federal suit.

Last week, Wingate also blocked a related law that would require people to receive permission from state public safety officials before holding protests or other gatherings near the Capitol, the governor’s mansion or other state government buildings in Jackson. Wingate wrote the law is vague and could have a chilling effect on First Amendment rights, particularly for people who want to demonstrate against government actions.

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Mississippi high court will hear case about appointing judges in majority-Black capital city