5th Circ. Won't Block Miss. GOP Capital City Law Amid Appeal

By Hailey Konnath | January 4, 2024, 11:41 PM EST ·

The Fifth Circuit on Thursday refused to temporarily block a controversial new Mississippi law that would give the majority-white state government greater control over the court system in the state's majority-Black capital city while the NAACP and other groups appeal, finding that they're not likely to succeed in their challenge.

The three-judge panel denied emergency motions for an injunction pending resolution of the appeal, ruling that the NAACP and other groups fighting H.B. 1020 haven't shown that they have the standing to pursue their claims. Notably, the panel also vacated a temporary administrative stay it had previously issued preventing the legislation from taking effect Jan. 1.

The Fifth Circuit rejected several theories of standing posited by the NAACP, in particular its assertion that it holds a legally protected interest in the new "inferior court" established by the law to address crime in the Capitol Complex Improvement District, or CCID. That argument "arrives before us unsupported by law or reason," the panel said.

"That the CCID court will (purportedly) be less accountable, relative to other municipal courts in Jackson, to the local governing authority," doesn't mean the groups have suffered the concrete and particularized, actual and imminent injury to interests protected by the Constitution, according to the decision.

Nor has the NAACP shown any injury to the legally protected interest held by voters, the Fifth Circuit said, adding that its assertion that the law takes away power from local officials has "no basis in fact."

"The challenged legislation creates a new CCID court, staffed with a newly appointed judge and newly appointed prosecutors," the panel said. "Plaintiffs have not shown that H.B. 1020 alters or affects — in any way — the method of appointment for any municipal court in Jackson. Nothing has been taken away from Jackson's local governing authority."

And the NAACP has failed to establish that the law causes stigmatic harm, the panel said.

"Establishing standing based on stigmatic harm requires plaintiffs to allege discriminatory treatment — no matter how strongly plaintiffs feel about H.B. 1020's message," the Fifth Circuit said. "But mere offense at the message is all that plaintiffs allege."

Finally, the panel shot down the NAACP's argument that benefits of the CCID court will flow primarily to a disproportionately white population. That's an injury-in-fact only if the government "erects a harrier that makes it more difficult for members of one group to obtain a benefit than it is for members of another group," the panel said, citing circuit precedent. But the NAACP's filings are "silent" as to what barrier has been erected here, it said.

"In sum, plaintiffs fail to plead a cognizable injury-in-fact and thus lack standing to assert their claims," the Fifth Circuit said. "Without standing, they cannot obtain an injunction."

In April, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves signed two pieces of legislation that give the white-controlled state government power to reshape both the court system and the police in Jackson in an effort to curb violent crime in the city. The governor's signing of the bills followed months of public protests over the legislation, which the NAACP and other groups immediately sued to block.

The NAACP claimed in its suit that new judges and other officials appointed under the law will be selected by white state officials and unaccountable to the voters of Jackson. They say the appointments violate their Fourteenth Amendment rights to equal protection of the law.

According to Thursday's order, the NAACP had hoped to receive a ruling on its motion for a preliminary injunction before the law was set to go into effect Jan. 1. However, no such ruling was handed down, so it asked for emergency relief from the Fifth Circuit. On Dec. 31, the Fifth Circuit agreed to issue a temporary stay and ordered the district court to issue a final, appealable order by Wednesday.

However, "[u]nbeknownst to this court, and (apparently) plaintiffs, the district court did issue an order on Dec. 31, 2023, denying plaintiffs' motion for an injunction," the panel said Thursday. In that decision, the lower court held that the NAACP and other plaintiffs were unlikely to succeed on the merits because they lacked standing, the panel said.

On Jan. 3, the plaintiffs filed an amended notice of appeal in light of that order, per the Fifth Circuit. Again, the plaintiffs had asked the Fifth Circuit to issue an injunction pending their appeal.

"We now vacate that temporary administrative stay and deny both motions for an injunction pending appeal," the Fifth Circuit said.

A spokesperson for Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch, who is among the officials named in the suit, said in a statement Thursday, "We appreciate the court's swift consideration of this matter."

"The people of Jackson deserve a safer community and this office stands ready to help the people of Jackson get access to the prompt adjudication of justice that this law makes possible," the spokesperson said.

The NAACP didn't immediately respond to requests for comment late Thursday.

Under the new law, some key civil and criminal cases will be diverted away from powerful elected Black judges in Jackson and toward unelected judges appointed by the state's white chief supreme court justice. Four appointed judges are also to be added to the existing circuit court in Jackson, which handles major criminal cases and key civil lawsuits and whose four elected judges are all Black.

The ACLU and other groups have also sued over the law in state court. In general, the law's opponents say such appointments would dilute the power of the elected Black judges, would violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and would also violate Mississippi state constitutional provisions that require the election of judges.

Meanwhile, Republican proponents have argued that the legislation aimed to reduce a judicial backlog and fight persistent violent crime in the capital city. There have been years of political tension between Jackson's majority-Black, majority-Democratic city leadership and the majority-white, majority-Republican legislature that meets in Jackson.

In May, a state judge delayed implementation of the law until "a full hearing is had on the matter and a ruling is issued or until May 14." That judge, Hinds County Chancellor Dewayne Thomas, had lobbied against the bill.

U.S. Circuit Judges Jerry Edwin Smith, Jennifer Walker Elrod and Kurt D. Engelhardt sat on the panel for the Fifth Circuit.

The NAACP is represented in-house by Joseph R. Schottenfeld and by Carroll E. Rhodes of the Law Offices of Carroll Rhodes, and Mark H. Lynch, Brenden J. Cline, Eric H. Holder Jr., Megan A. Crowley, Gary S. Guzy and David T. Leapheart of Covington & Burling LLP.

The state officials are represented by Justin L. Matheny, Rex M. Shannon III and Gerald L. Kucia of the Mississippi Attorney General's Office and Mark A. Nelson and Ned A. Nelson of Nelson Law PLLC.

The case is NAACP et al. v. Sean Tindell et al., case number 23-60647, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

–Additional reporting by Daniel Connolly. Editing by Michael Watanabe.

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