Federal judge extends temporary halt on appointed judges in Mississippi capital

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A federal judge on Monday extended his order that temporarily stops the Mississippi Supreme Court chief justice from appointing judges in the capital city of Jackson and the county where it's located, both of which are majority-Black.

U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate's new order could last until June 9, giving attorneys time to further develop arguments about citizens' right to elect judges.

Wingate heard hours of testimony Monday in a lawsuit filed by the national, state and local chapters of the NAACP, which challenges a state law that Republican Gov. Tate Reeves signed in April.

The civil rights organization argues that the law passed by the majority-white and Republican-controlled state Legislature creates unequal treatment for residents of Jackson and Hinds County compared to residents of the rest of the state. The capital city and Hinds County are both majority-Black and governed by Democrats.

Carroll Rhodes, an attorney for the NAACP, asked in court: “Why single out Hinds County?”

Officials pushing the new law said during the legislative session that they were trying to curb crime. Opponents said the law stomps on local self-governance.

The law would expand state policing inside the city of Jackson and create a new court inside part of Jackson with a judge who would be appointed by the Mississippi chief justice. It would also allow the chief justice to appoint four judges to work alongside the four elected circuit court judges in Hinds County through 2026.

Monday's arguments centered on how Mississippi judges are chosen — the most immediate question because the chief justice was supposed to appoint judges soon after the governor signed the law.

The Mississippi Constitution specifies that voters elect judges for circuit courts, which handle criminal and civil cases. A state law enacted before this year allows some exceptions for appointment of judges, including when a governor chooses someone to fill a vacancy after a judge dies or resigns and when the chief justice appoints judges to help with a crowded court docket.

Mark Nelson, an attorney representing Chief Justice Mike Randolph, argued Monday that any chief justice should not be sued for carrying out judicial acts. Nelson also said Randolph “is handcuffed to argue the merits” in the lawsuit against him because judicial rules require the chief justice to remain neutral.

Rhodes argued that appointing judges is an executive or administrative act, not a judicial act. Rhodes said while the new law would create discrimination against residents of Jackson and Hinds County, the plaintiffs are not accusing Randolph himself of discrimination.

Rex Shannon, a special assistant state attorney general, said Hinds County is different from other counties because Jackson is the state's largest city and the seat of state government. Shannon also said Jackson and Hinds County have high crime rates and “dysfunctional” local government, and Hinds County circuit court has a backlog of cases.

“It's a problem that affects everyone, Your Honor, regardless of race,” Shannon said to Wingate.

On May 15, a state court judge dismissed a similar lawsuit, writing that the appointment of judges does not violate the state constitution. Plaintiffs have appealed that decision to the Mississippi Supreme Court.