The U.S. government announced Wednesday it would intervene in a federal lawsuit challenging a Mississippi state law that took over control of courts and prosecutions in part of the state's capital city, Jackson, Courthouse News reports. The Department of Justice's move cuts to the heart of what critics say the new law amounts to: an attack by the white-dominated state leadership on the Black political leadership of Jackson. Earlier this year, the state Legislature created a separate court system for part of Jackson with the passage of House Bill 2020. Local judges in Mississippi are traditionally elected, but the new court system relies largely on state appointments. Called the Capitol Complex Improvement District Court, the system would be served by a state-appointed judge and state-appointed prosecutors. The bill also mandates the appointment of four new special circuit court judges to serve alongside the elected judges on the Hinds County Circuit Court, which has jurisdiction over Jackson. The judges would be appointed by the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, a position given to the most senior of its nine judges. There have been no Black statewide elected officials in the state since Reconstruction.
In a federal challenge this past April, the NAACP argued that the legislation discriminates against the residents of Jackson, where 79% of the roughly 149,000 residents are Black, and Hinds County, with a 70% Black population. The Justice Department said the law represents a significant change to Hinds County's government and causes Black voters to be treated differently there than anywhere else in the state. State lawmakers pointed to backlogs as justification for the passage of HB 2020, but the Justice Department says the problem is one of the state's own doing. “For decades, the Mississippi Legislature has shortchanged Hinds County’s criminal justice system,” the complaint in intervention states. “This has strained the system and made it harder for local police, prosecutors, judges, and other officials to do their work effectively and efficiently.” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke called the state legislation a “thinly veiled state takeover ... intended to strip power, voice and resources away from Hinds County’s predominantly-Black electorate.” In a press release, Clarke also said, “Our complaint alleges that Mississippi has violated the U.S. Constitution by creating a new, two-tiered system of justice — which erodes the authority of Black elected local officials and creates a new system to be led by judges and prosecutors hand-picked and appointed by state officials.”