On September 21, 2023, the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of 2023 House Bill 1020, which created a new inferior court system. This new court system will operate similar to a municipal court and service the Capitol Complex Improvement District (“CCID”) – an area of land encompassing much of downtown and northeast Jackson. House Bill 1020 also mandated that the Chief Justice appoint four temporary circuit court judges to serve the Seventh Circuit Court District (where Jackson is located), but the Supreme Court found this provision to be unconstitutional. However, the Mississippi Supreme Court recognized the Chief Justice’s ability to appoint special judges to any judicial district in the State facing exigent circumstances. Thus, while the Legislature could not require the Chief Justice to appoint additional judges, the Chief Justice has the authority to do so under appropriate circumstances.
A. Brief History of the Capitol Complex Improvement District and House Bill 1020
The Capitol Complex Improvement District (CCID) was created by the Mississippi Legislature in 2017 to establish regular funding and administration of infrastructure projects within a defined area of the City of Jackson, where the majority of State-owned properties and State facilities operated. In short, the City’s aging infrastructure, such as roads, water, and sewer, were failing, so the State gave itself authority to address infrastructure concerns in the State’s capitol. The original boundaries covered approximately 8.7 miles and encompassed downtown Jackson and much of the bordering neighborhoods of Belhaven and Fondren.
Like many major cities across the country, Jackson saw an uptick in crime following the Covid-19 pandemic. In fact, a federal district court judge recently remarked that Jackson is suffering from a “sweltering, undisputed and suffocating” crime problem that has “crippled the criminal justice system.”
In light of these challenges, the Mississippi Legislature passed, and the Governor signed into law, House Bill 1020 at the end of the 2023 legislative session. House Bill 1020 made multiple changes to the CCID, including:
- Expanding its boundaries to encompass portions of northeast Jackson;
- Allocating tax revenues to the CCID project fund;
- Authorizing the appointment of additional assistant district attorneys and public defenders within the Seventh Circuit Court District;
- Directing the creation of a separate 911 system servicing the CCID;
- Creating a new inferior court system to serve the CCID; and
- Mandating that the Chief Justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court appoint four temporary circuit court judges to serve the Seventh Circuit Court District.
Within days of House Bill 1020’s passage, a few Jackson residents filed suit in Mississippi chancery court, challenging the constitutionality of the portions of House Bill 1020 that provided for the creation of the inferior court system and the appointment of temporary circuit court judges (Sections 1 and 4). The chancellor presiding over the case found that the plaintiffs had not met their heavy burden of proving that these provisions were unconstitutional beyond a reasonable doubt. The Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of the inferior court system but found that the mandate to appoint unelected circuit court judges to be unconstitutional. However, the Supreme Court went on to find that the Chief Justice had the authority to appoint special judges to address exigent circumstances, not just in Jackson but anywhere in the State.
B. The CCID Inferior Court
The Mississippi Constitution directs the Legislature to establish and abolish inferior courts as needed. See Miss. Const. art. 6, § 152. This is what gave the Legislature the authority to create the State’s municipal court system. Thus, the litigation did not challenge the Legislature’s authority to establish inferior courts; rather, it questioned whether the CCID inferior court was, in fact, inferior. The issue was that House Bill 1020 does not expressly create a right to appeal.
While the Supreme Court noted that the “absence of an express appeal provision is perhaps not ideal,” it found such an absence to not render the inferior court constitutional. On its face, the CCID inferior court was intended to function as a municipal court, including giving it “the same jurisdiction as municipal courts” and requiring the CCID inferior judges to have the same qualifications as “municipal judges.” Under existing Mississippi law, appeals from municipal court first go to county court, and then to circuit court. See Miss. Code Ann. § 11-51-81. The Supreme Court found that appeals from the CCID’s inferior court would follow this same procedure, despite House Bill 1020 not explicitly saying so.
Further, the Supreme Court observed that Mississippi Code Section 11-51-95 created a procedure whereby circuit courts could review judgments of “all tribunals inferior” via a writ of certiorari. To be constitutionally “inferior,” the inferior court’s decisions need only be subject to a superior court’s review “by appeal or certiorari.” Here, the Supreme Court found there were both.
C. Authority to Appoint Temporary Judges
The Mississippi Constitution requires circuit court and chancery court judges to be elected to four-year terms. See Miss. Const. art. 6, § 153. Perhaps this is why House Bill 1020 provided for the appointment of unelected Circuit Court judges for only a 3.5-year term. Despite falling just shy of four years, the Supreme Court found the mandate to appoint unelected judges to be constitutionally infirm. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court went on to hold that “the Chief Justice unquestionably has authority under Section 9-1-105(2) to appoint special temporary judges to the Seventh Circuit Court District – or any other Mississippi court – to address overcrowded dockets or other emergencies.”
Section 9-1-105(2) provides in relevant part:
Upon the request of the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals, the senior judge of a chancery or circuit court district, the senior judge of a county court, or upon his own motion, the Chief Justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court, with the advice and consent of a majority of the justices of the Mississippi Supreme Court, shall have the authority to appoint a special judge to serve on a temporary basis in a circuit, chancery or county court in the event of an emergency or overcrowded docket.
Miss. Code. Ann. § 9-1-105(2).
Section 9-1-105 has been utilized for more than 30 years and has survived prior challenges brought before the Mississippi Court of Appeals and a federal district court. To illustrate, in 2003, then Chief Justice Edwin Pittman appointed the Honorable Jess Dickinson to serve as a special circuit court judge for the Twelfth Circuit Court District (Forrest and Perry Counties). Then, in 2004, Chief Justice James Smith appointed the Honorable L. Breland Hilburn as a special circuit court judge for the Seventh Circuit Court District (the same circuit court being challenged) and he remained in that position for eight years. During this same period, up to six specially appointed judges were working alongside the four elected circuit court judges.
Use of Section 9-1-105 became prevalent again beginning in mid-2020 to appoint special judges to various circuit courts, chancery courts, county courts, and youth courts throughout the State in response to challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. And, most recently, in 2022, the Chief Justice appointed four special judges to the Seventh Circuit Court District “to alleviate the strain on the Hinds County courts caused or exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
In light of this history, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the Chief Justice’s authority to appoint special judges to any court across the State. It also “decline[d] to preemptively and arbitrarily limit the period a special temporary judge may serve.” Thus, if the Chief Justice (with the consent of the majority of other Justices) deems it necessary to appoint temporary judges to the Seventh Circuit Court District, it has the authority to do so. And any such appointment may be longer or shorter than the 3.5-year term contained in Section 1 of House Bill 1020.