“Sweltering, Undisputed, and Suffocating” Jackson’s Crime Problem or the Legislature’s Solution?

Depending on who is asked, H.B. 1020 and the recently expanded Capital Complex Improvement District (“CCID”) were either a solution to Jackson’s well-known crime problem or an attempt to strip the leadership and citizens of Jackson of their authority and rights. The expansion of the CCID through House Bill 1020 (“H.B. 1020”) was a highly politicized, hotly contested piece of legislation that has gained national attention. Since the bill’s passage in April, opponents have sued the State, the Chief Justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court, and the Hinds County Circuit Clerk. However, on Thursday, September 21, 2023, the Mississippi Supreme Court gave a ruling in Saunders v. State that may appease both supporters and opponents. The Court upheld H.B. 1020 and the creation of an inferior court with jurisdiction over the CCID. Still, it struck down the portion of the bill that, according to its opponents, disenfranchised Jackson residents.

H.B. 1020 expanded the CCID, initially created in 2017, throughout the Capital city to include significant state properties in Jackson and many of the city’s major institutions and assets. The bill, among other things, created a new inferior court with jurisdiction over the CCID, added four special circuit judges in Hinds County to be appointed by the Chief Justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court, granted the Mississippi Attorney General the authority to appoint CCID prosecutors, and created a development district to fund and administer infrastructure projects within the complex.

Although the hotly contested bill has faced political and social scrutiny, the plaintiffs in Saunders v. State focused the litigation on Section 1 and Section 4 of H.B. 1020, leaving the rest of the bill unchallenged. Section 1 of the bill directs the Chief Justice to appoint four temporary special circuit judges, while Section 4 creates an inferior court with jurisdiction over the CCID. The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled on the matter in a way that could be viewed as a “middle ground” for proponents and opponents alike.

The Creation of an Inferior Court

The plaintiffs in Saunders alleged that Section 4 created an inferior court that was unconstitutional and not truly inferior because the CCID court lacked an express right to appeal from the CCID court to the superior circuit court. With the required presumption of the validity owed to the properly enacted H.B. 1020, the Court held that the legislation’s lack of an express right to appeal was not fatal because an appeal process already existed for municipal courts. The Court reasoned that because the CCID was written to carry the same jurisdiction and function as existing municipal courts, the CCID is the functional equivalent of a municipal court. Therefore, the process for appeals from the CCID will be the same as the statutory process for appeals from municipal courts. The Court affirmed the constitutionality of  Section 4 of H.B. 1020.

Justice Kitchens, however, disagreed with the majority on this point. Justice Kitchens wrote that the lack of a statutory appeal mechanism was a “fatal constitutional deficiency” that the judicial branch of government could not rectify. According to Justice Kitchens, the court created by H.B. 1020 adopted some characteristics of municipal courts but also possessed conflicting characteristics. Thus, without plain language defining the legislature’s intent to create a municipal court within the CCID, Justice Kitchens wrote that the court had no authority to interpret the statute in that way. Further, Justice Kitchens wrote that the constitutionality presumption afforded to properly enacted legislation “is tempered by the separation of powers doctrine” and does not require nor allow the court to guess at the Legislature’s intent. Although Justice Kitchens disagreed with the majority on the constitutionality of Section 4, the full court agreed that Section 1 of H.B. 1020 was unconstitutional.

The Appointment of Temporary Judges

Section 1 of H.B. 1020 provides that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Mississippi “shall appoint” four temporary judges to the Seventh Circuit Court District. Saunders argued that creating and appointing four additional judges to the Seventh Circuit violated the Mississippi Constitution. The Court agreed with Saunders, reasoning that even with the presumption of validity, H.B. 1020 conflicts with Article 6, Section 153 of the Mississippi Constitution. Article 6 requires the “judges of the circuit and chancery courts” to be elected by the people of Mississippi to hold office for four years. However, the Court further explained that all temporary special judge appointments are not inherently unconstitutional.

The precise language of Article 6, Section 153 has been excepted by § 9-1-05 of the Mississippi Code. § 9-1-05 provides for limited, enumerated circumstances where temporary judges may be appointed. Relevant to the case, § 9-1-05(2) provides that the Chief Justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court has the authority to appoint temporary judges in a circuit “in case of an emergency or overcrowded docket.” Saunders also challenged the Constitutionality of § 9-1-05. The Court held, however, that § 9-1-05 does not violate the Constitution because the statute does not provide for the creation of additional permanent judgeships but is instead “tethered to a specific emergency or docket backlog.” Although § 95-1-105(2) has been used to appoint temporary judges, the Court did not attempt to use the statute to uphold Section 1 of H.B. 1020.

In sum, H.B. 1020 and the expansion of the CCID still stand. Proponents of the CCID and those who believe in the positive impact of the legislation may sleep better at night knowing H.B. 1020 has withstood Constitutional muster. Saunders v. State, however, may also appease opponents of the legislation. Particularly those who saw H.B. 1020 as a disenfranchisement of the residents of Jackson since Section 1 of the bill allowing for the appointment instead of the election of the judges has been held to violate the Mississippi Constitution.