(WASHINGTON) — The Republican-led Mississippi state House of Representatives passed a bill on Feb. 7 that would form a court system of unelected judges and prosecutors to preside over part of the capital city of Jackson and expand the Capitol Police force, a move that is drawing the ire of civil rights groups.
Several elected officials, including state Rep. Robert L. Johnson III, the Mississippi House Minority Leader, have sounded off against the bill, contending that it would remove the voice of city residents, the majority of whom are Black.
Johnson spoke with ABC News Live Wednesday about the bill and his concerns.
ABC NEWS LIVE: So I want to start by reading part of your joint statement about these bills. You say HB 1020 and SB 2889 are “an insult and a distraction, taking power away from the citizens of our capital city while we waste critical hours sitting around and letting hospitals close and our people die.” You go on to say, “These bills are what modern-day Jim Crow looks like.” Explain to us how this bill even got this far along in the process to begin with.
REP. ROBERT L. JOHNSON III: Well, we have a supermajority-led House and Senate and a Republican governor. And as I described them, from time to time, they are kind of new to this process and they don’t have any respect for the rules, procedure or tradition of the legislature. There aren’t even opportunities to debate some of these issues. They’ve just decided that they’re just going to run roughshod over the whole process and have what they want.
ABC NEWS LIVE: All right. So just break it down for us in layman’s terms. If this were to pass, what would this mean for the Black residents?
JOHNSON: Well, they would essentially have judges who will be appointed by a supreme court justice who was appointed by this very governor that is engineering this effort. They wouldn’t have any say-so in that judgeship, those multiple judgeships. And so those people would answer to no one who lives in Hinds County. Not only would that judge not be elected, [but also] that judge could come from anywhere in the state. And so the constitution says all of our judges… shall be elected. And so this takes that right to vote, their right to exercise their constitutional power [away] from the people in the city of Jackson.
So all the cases that anybody brings against the state of Mississippi, and we bring them all the time. I’m a lawyer, if you sue the state of Mississippi, they have to come through the circuit or chancery court in Hinds County. There was a time when we were fighting for more money for public education. And one of the things that they wanted to challenge was the constitutionality of the referendum proposal. One of the white Republican legislators told his constituents, ‘If we pass this referendum, then you will have to answer to a Black judge in Hinds County.’ There are these little phrases, these invites…that they have that always point to race.
JOHNSON: There is a chance the bill would die in the Senate. Thankfully, because of the uproar, because of the push that many of us have had — from lawyers to community activists, the legislators and the national pressure from people like just the exposure from networks and people like you, they are feeling the pressure. This looks does look like Jim Crow, like post-Reconstruction. This looks like everything that some of us who are old enough remember growing up through the civil rights movement, the things that we fought to reverse.
ABC NEWS LIVE: Representative, I know your intention is to stop it, but let’s just play devil’s advocate here. Are you concerned that if this bill does become law, would it create a new template for a Republican fight for the years to come similar to what’s happened with critical race theory law, for example?
JOHNSON: Well, yes. Look, we tell people, we’ve been telling people all over the state: This is not a Jackson problem; this is a Mississippi problem. If they’re going to do it to Jackson, they’ll do it to Greenville, Greenwood, anywhere they want to go. They want to create a city within a city that just serves a particular segment of the population. This capital city complex has a disproportionate white population. [It] doesn’t represent the actual per capita demographic in the city of Jackson. This is a template for what they will do in any city that has Black or African American leadership. And so, yes, the danger is that this is the route Republicans will continue to do in places where they lose political power.
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