Dispatches from the present
On April 21st, Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves signed into law House Bill 1020, which seeks to establish a separate judicial system in downtown Jackson, in Hinds County. The proponents of the bill, who are almost entirely white and Republican, argue that it will bring down violent crime rates in the capital city. The state officials who would control this new system are white; more than eighty percent of Jackson’s population is black. According to the law, the chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court can appoint four judges to administer justice in Hinds County alongside the existing elected judges. The legislators who introduced the bill do not reside in Hinds County, and the appointed judges need not be residents of Hinds County. The law would also expand policing in Jackson and allow the state attorney general to appoint prosecutors.
Critics of the law point out that it disenfranchises black citizens, violates their constitutional right to stand trial before an elected judge and makes them subject to police, prosecutors and judges who are not accountable to them. “Only in Mississippi would we have a bill like this, with our history, where you say solving the problem is taking the vote away from black people because we don’t know how to choose our leaders,” said Representative Ed Blackmon, D-Canton. The House Democratic Caucus called the bill “a racist, unconstitutional power grab”; Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba likened the measures to apartheid. A federal court has temporarily blocked the law on the grounds that it unconstitutionally discriminates against black citizens.
Judge Winston Kidd, the senior-most elected judge on the Hinds County Circuit Court, has served for more than twenty years. He decided to become a judge after observing the discrimination low-income and black citizens faced in courtrooms around the state. Here he discusses how the new law would affect the elected judges’ ability to hear cases.
There’s a very fine line in what we can say as judges. Because we’ve taken an oath that we won’t be involved in any political activity. But I met with my colleagues, and we decided that it is imperative that we speak out on this issue.
Some individuals say there’s a backlog in the system. Our circuit district is large. It’s a unique district which includes our capital city. There is a lot of violent crime. So we do have a heavy docket. But cases don’t go to trial for a number of reasons. Our state crime lab is not funded fully. At one point, we had one pathologist who testified in every circuit courtroom in the state. We’ve had problems with older cases not being ready for trial because an autopsy report is not available, or analysis of certain rape kits. And there are many other reasons which might cause a case not to be ready for trial.
You have to have the cooperation of the sitting elected judges in order for a restructuring of this nature to work. When elected judges find out about House Bill 1020 in the newspaper, there’s a breakdown in the system. When I first read about it, I questioned why all interested parties can’t all come to the table and address these problems together. I did not feel good about this situation, but I said, “Let me get more information.” As we moved forward, I felt even worse. Bringing in appointed judges and making them equal to the sitting judges is a direct attack on the sitting judges in our district.
The four circuit judges here in Hinds County all came to the bench with a wealth of experience. During the debate on House Bill 1020, someone asked the bill sponsor, “Why are judges being appointed from other areas of the state?” The bill’s sponsor replied that we want the “best and brightest.” Obviously, this statement suggests that we don’t have the best and brightest judges currently on the bench in Hinds County or that we can’t elect the best and brightest from Hinds County.
I’ll try to speak to the courtroom aspect of House Bill 1020—how will it affect the administration of justice? I believe it will have a negative impact on our courts. Further, I believe it will create chaos in our judicial system. House Bill 1020 creates, in essence, a separate court. If I were just an ordinary citizen of Hinds County, and I had to come before the courts, I would want to come before a judge who had been elected by the people of Hinds County. Moreover, our state constitution requires our judges to be elected. Elected judges are obviously more accountable, because during the next election, the electorate can simply choose not to send you back to the bench.
Where are the appointed judges going to hold court? Currently, in our courthouse, we don’t have space for four additional judges. We expect that to create problems with our trials. If you have four additional judges, they will more than likely ask the sitting elected judges, “Can I borrow your courtroom? Are you using it next week?” And this is going to create a lot of confusion and slow us down.
Will the appointed judges have a complete staff to deal with their cases? If not, then that will create an additional problem in terms of using the existing judges’ staff, including bailiffs, court reporters, law clerks and court administrators. So that, too, will slow down the progress of the sitting circuit judges. Then, another issue is, how will the four appointed judges receive cases? None of these issues have been resolved, and I don’t believe these issues were considered prior to the passage of House Bill 1020.
Since I came to the bench in 2001, our caseload has drastically increased, crime has increased, and we’re still at four circuit judges. When I look at other circuit districts in the state, if there’s a need for additional judges, then the legislature simply adds another elected judge to that district. That has happened many times since I’ve been on the bench in other areas of the state. If we added more elected judges, it would not be an issue as to how they would hear cases. They would be assigned cases in the same manner as our current elected judges, all by rotation, and where they would hear cases would become a matter for the county to decide. However, under House Bill 1020, the county will not be responsible for providing a location or any funds for the appointed judges. All of that will have to come out of the bill. The bill does provide funds for those judges, and there have been discussions about holding court at different locations throughout the city, such as other state buildings. But from a logistical standpoint, many issues come up when holding court away from the courthouse, especially in criminal cases.
I know that some of the proponents of that bill said we need to address crime. Well, I would agree that crime needs to be addressed, but I’m not sure that appointing judges will create a reduction of crime. My colleagues and I sentence individuals pursuant to the sentencing laws established by our legislature. If the legislature feels that the laws are improper, then perhaps they need to change them. I think there’s a sentiment that if judges are tough on crime, people will stop committing crime. But you cannot let public perception guide you in how you rule from the bench. You allow the law and your oath to guide you when you rule from the bench. Public perception would have you look at all those chronic criminal issues, would have you say that one individual was out on bond when he committed his crime, so you should be stricter with bond. But one person’s case doesn’t mean the next person is not entitled to bond. You have to look at every case individually, you have to consider each case as they come before you. If judges are appointed solely to get rid of crime, and if judges are appointed to give very high sentences, that would be wrong. If a judge is appointed solely to deny bond, that would obviously be wrong and a violation of the judicial oath.