Mississippi’s Black community was incensed earlier this week after state lawmakers proposed to create a separate justice system within the city of Jackson that would overrule the majority Black city council and put a large swath of the local justice system completely in the hands of state officials, all of whom are white.
As reported by Mississippi Today, the legislation would allow the state’s white chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court, its white attorney general, and the white state public safety commissioner to appoint new judges, new prosecutors, new public defenders and new police officers to oversee a new district in the city encompassing all of the city’s majority-white neighborhoods, effectively creating a separate justice system for whites in what is statistically considered the Blackest city in America.
And it would do so without any of those officials receiving a single vote of support from any resident from Jackson, 80 percent of whom are Black.
“It reminds me of apartheid,” Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba told the website Tuesday.
Newsweek has contacted Lumumba for comment, as well as all three of the bill’s principal sponsors, who claimed on the floor of the Mississippi Legislature that the foremost aim of the bill was “public safety” amid concerns of crime rates in Jackson.
However, some legal observers described the effort by the Mississippi Legislature as an attempt by white conservative politicians to erode the Black vote in a way that had not been seen since the Jim Crow era.
Many of the Republican lawmakers who voted for the bill notably occupy districts that are currently under dispute by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union for diluting the Black vote, while others noted that the area’s relatively low crime rate compared to the rest of the state offered little justification for a police force separate from Jackson’s.
“I am shocked by this,” Bill Quigley, an emeritus professor of law at Loyola University-New Orleans and a former litigator for the NAACP Legal Fund, told Newsweek. “I know of no other such legislation in judicial elections or selections in decades. This is not a step backwards. This is a complete Olympic-level broad jump backwards to Jim Crow era politics.”
Such a system, Quigley said, was “the rule for decades” in the South until the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, formally prohibiting arbitrary rules like poll taxes and literacy tests designed to bar Black Americans from the polls. And under that law, the Mississippi Legislature’s latest proposal would likely be found unconstitutional under its merits as having a clear racial bias under the protections provided by the 14th amendment of the United States Constitution.
Lumumba, as he told The Nation magazine upon his election in 2020, sought to transform Jackson into “the most radical city on the planet,” introducing policies like Universal Basic Income, a reformed police department, and other progressive policies. With many of his policy promises undelivered—not to mention his administration crippled by crisis after crisis—Lumumba has found himself under constant scrutiny from Mississippi’s conservative establishment, even earning the label of “incompetent” from troubled Republican Governor Tate Reeves at a pre-Thanksgiving turkey pardoning last fall.
“This city was once a great city, and it has the potential to be a great city again,” Reeves said at the time, blaming the mayor and his administration for a series of woes including crime, its broken water system, and other issues.
The protections under the VRA that would have protected Jackson, however, have been eroded over time, with an upcoming case in the conservative-led U.S. Supreme Court—Merrill v. Milligan—expected to chip away at those protections even further.
Any challenge to Mississippi’s proposed law under that scenario, Quigley said, would likely be an uphill battle.
The city would first need to prove clear racial bias. Then, the city would need to establish that the state broke the law in imposing new regulations for one specific jurisdiction—in this case, Jackson—intended to “single them out” for political retribution. State leaders had recently been highly critical of Lumumba’s administration and, in particular, the liberal leanings of the city, potentially creating cause to claim the move was politically motivated.
The only problem: Mississippi, unlike other states, does not have a clause in its constitution barring laws specifically targeting one group, complicating any legal challenge the city might have.
“In the absence of any evidence that this was done with a racial purpose—people don’t tend to do things for racial reasons as much as they used to—and so the courts kind of often will conclude that their hands are tied,” Fred Smith Jr., a scholar of the federal judiciary at Emory University, told Newsweek. “It’s concerning to see from a perspective of democracy. While in some ways, it’s not as bad as declaring secession, it also is in the sense people’s taxes are being invested in a system they cannot democratically control.”
Potentially more concerning is how common the practice has gotten. In cities like Portland, “business improvement districts” funded by local business leaders have brought privately run police forces and courts into the role of policing public spaces, unaccountable to the same groups they purport to serve and protect.
In Washington, D.C., this week, Tennessee Republican Senator Bill Hagerty introduced legislation to block legislation passed by the local city council to lower penalties for a number of violent criminal offenses, calling the decision enacted by local lawmakers an “irresponsible” erosion of public safety. And after an elected Democrat refused to enforce state law banning transgender healthcare, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis suspended him indefinitely, essentially using his authority to overrule the whims of the local electorate.
Washington, D.C. should set a nationwide example by enacting legislation that makes people safer—not less safe.
That’s why I’m introducing a resolution of disapproval to block the Council’s irresponsible Revised Criminal Code Act of 2022 with @Rep_Clyde. https://t.co/nmYcCM6lQB
— Senator Bill Hagerty (@SenatorHagerty) February 10, 2023
What’s taking place in Jackson, Smith said, is a gross distortion of an already disturbing trend.
“Even if you take race out of the story entirely, it’s disturbing,” he said. “From the perspective of local democracy and a jurisdiction being able to have some level of autonomy over people that didn’t elect them is concerning.”
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