Mississippi discriminates against Black residents with appointed judges, Justice Department says
— Story by Thao Nguyen, USA TODAY
The U.S. Justice Department filed a complaint Wednesday saying a new Mississippi law discriminates against residents of the majority-Black Hinds County, which includes the capital city of Jackson, by mandating the appointment of prosecutors and special judges.
In a state where most judges are traditionally elected, the new law creates a separate court system in part of Jackson with prosecutors appointed by the Mississippi attorney general and a judge appointed by the Mississippi Supreme Court chief justice. It also authorizes the chief justice to appoint four new special circuit court judges to work alongside four other elected judges in Hinds County.
FILE - U.S. Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division speaks, June 1, 2023, in Jackson, Miss. On Wednesday, July 12, the Justice Department filed court papers challenging a Mississippi law that authorizes the appointment of some judges in Jackson and Hinds County, which are majority-Black. Most judges in Mississippi are elected, and Clarke said the appointment of judges discriminates against Black residents. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)
© Rogelio V. Solis, AP
Kristen Clarke, the department's assistant attorney general for civil rights, said in a statement that Mississippi lawmakers created "a crude scheme that singles out and discriminates against Black residents" in Jackson and Hinds County. Clarke claims the state violated the U.S. Constitution by "creating a new, two-tiered system of justice."
"This thinly-veiled state takeover is intended to strip power, voice, and resources away from Hinds County’s predominantly-Black electorate, singling out the majority Black Hinds County for adverse treatment imposed on no other voters in the State of Mississippi," Clarke said.
Federal challenge joins NAACP lawsuit
The Justice Department announced Wednesday it was seeking to join the NAACP's federal lawsuit that was filed against the state shortly after Republican Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves signed the law in April.
NAACP President and CEO, Derrick Johnson, previously said the law, which also expands the reach of a state-run police department in Jackson, only adds on to "years of discriminatory disinvestment and neglect from the state government" in a city where the total Black population is over 79.5%. Hinds County has a total Black population of 70%, according to the Justice Department.
Voters have elected Black officials to most positions in the capital city and county — which are both majority-Black and governed by Democrats. In 2018, Hinds County voters elected four Black circuit court judges to its four elected circuit judge positions.
Although the Justice Department's complaint challenges the appointment of prosecutors and judges, it does not challenge the police expansion. In its lawsuit, the NAACP said police expansion also violates the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection by treating Jackson differently than anywhere else in the state.
Critics have said the law takes away self-governance in Jackson and Hinds County. But members of the majority-white and Republican-controlled Legislature said they passed the law to improve safety in Jackson, which has seen a high murder rate in recent years.
U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate has temporarily blocked the law from taking effect. Wingate would have to approve the Justice Department's request to intervene in the lawsuit.
Long history of discrimination in state capital
Johnson has criticized Mississippi officials for not addressing Jackson's long history of discrimination and inadequate investments, including a water crisis that began in August 2022 and triggered a debate over racial discrimination and infrastructure neglect.
"If elected officials in Mississippi want to help address the results of their negligence and improve the lives of Jackson residents, they should start with completing improvements to Jackson's water system, not undermining the constitutional rights of their citizens," Johnson said in April.
The Justice Department noted several other instances the Mississippi Legislature has "shortchanged" the city and county.
The department alleged the state Legislature failed to provide the county with the necessary resources, funding, and personnel. It also accused Reeves of repeatedly using his "line-item veto power to cut funding appropriations to Jackson institutions, while leaving appropriations for other cities almost entirely untouched."
And although Black voters in Jackson have had a long history of voting for Black candidates in elections, voting remains racially polarized across the state, according to the department. In recent decades, the department alleged white Mississippi officials have expressed a lack of trust in predominantly elected Black officials.
"State officials have made public statements criticizing local Black leadership ... attempting to erode the control of the Black government officials from the Jackson area," the department said in its complaint.
Contributing: Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mississippi discriminates against Black residents with appointed judges, Justice Department says