(JACKSON, Miss.) — The Mississippi House passed a controversial bill that would form a court system of unelected judges and prosecutors to preside over part of the majority-Black city of Jackson.
Black residents make up 82.8% of the city’s population, according to the U.S. Census.
The bill would expand the city’s capitol complex improvement district, which “was created by the Mississippi Legislature to establish regular funding and administration of infrastructure projects within a defined area of the city of Jackson,” according to city documents.
Instead of giving the city’s majority-Black residents an opportunity to vote for judges and prosecutors in the court, the Republican-backed bill would require government officials to choose who fills those positions.
This court system would preside over the district expansion, according to one of the bill’s sponsors, Republican Sen. Trey Lamar.
The legislation would also expand the capitol police force.
The bill’s details include: the state’s supreme court chief justice wouls appoint two judges; the attorney general would appoint two prosecutors; the state public defender would appoint public defenders; and the Mississippi public safety commissioner would have authority over capitol police.
The state’s supreme court chief justice, the AG, the state public defender and the public safety commissioner currently in office are white.
Lamar, the bill’s sponsor, does not live in Jackson and represents a majority-white district in Mississippi.
Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba called it “the most oppressive legislation that we have seen in our city’s history.”
“It’s oppressive because it strips the right of Black folks to vote and it’s oppressive because it puts a military force over people that has no accountability to them,” he told reporters. “It’s oppressive because there will be judges who will determine sentences over people’s lives. It’s oppressive because it redirects their tax dollars to something they don’t endorse or believe in.”
Lawmakers intensely debated the bill on the House floor Tuesday.
Lamar said the effort hopes to address crime in Jackson, as well as help with “a backlog, a need for assistance in the Hinds County judiciary.”
“The people who voted for this bill are trying to make Jackson safer, that’s all they’re interested in and if you’re not committing crimes in Jackson, you really don’t have anything to worry about,” said Lamar.
Critics argued that the bill was targeting the Black community, and stripping residents of their “consitutional right” and voting power.
Several lawmakers compared the bill to Jim Crow-era laws and racist legislation of the past: “I’ve been here since — for 74 years and one thing I can do is recognize a racist when I see one,” Democratic state Rep. Solomon C. Osborne said on the House floor,
“In my humble opinion, I think that House Bill 1020 is simply a power grab,” said John G. Faulkner, another Democratic member of the Mississippi House of Representatives.
Lamar waived concerns, citing the courts lower or “inferior” status, which means that decisions will be subject to scrutiny from a higher court.
The bill will now head to the Senate floor, where the Republicans also hold the majority of seats.
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