Mississippi Supreme Court

Legislative leaders weigh stripping Supreme Court’s ability to give own raise


Legislative leaders weigh stripping Supreme Court’s ability to give own raise

The did not testify during the one day of public hearings held recently by the influential Legislative Budget Committee, but that does not mean the justices were not discussed.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Randolph’s interpretation of a law enacted in 2012 that he says grants him the authority to give the state’s judiciary a pay raise without legislative approval was an undercurrent of the meeting of legislative leaders.

Actually, for Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, it was more than an undercurrent.

“I just think it is appropriate for the Legislature to do the appropriations,” Hosemann said. “That is what people hired them (legislators) to do. I don’t think there should be an exception to that.”

Hosemann, of course, was referring to the classic, old school breakdown of the responsibilities of the three branches of government: the legislative branch makes the laws and appropriates funds, the executive branch carries out those laws, and the judiciary interprets the laws.

Randolph would argue lawmakers in the 2012 legislation relinquished to him the authority to appropriate money for the judicial pay raises.

Starting after 2019, the 2012 law called for the Supreme Court justices and other judges to receive an automatic pay raise if funds are available, based on a determination of “an adequate level of compensation” as determined by the state Personnel Board. That board regularly conducts studies to determine the salary levels for state employees based on various factors, such as pay for similar positions in the private sector and in neighboring states. Until the 2012 law, the Personnel Board had not been involved in the issue of providing pay raises for the judiciary. That had been left up to the Legislature as it continues to be for other state elected officials.

The 2012 law increased the fees on various court filings — such as the fee to file a civil or on the levies in criminal proceedings — to help pay for the salary increase. Some argued at the time the increase on the court filings was equivalent to a tax increase for those who use the courts. But then-Chief Justice William Waller Jr., who advocated for the 2012 legislation, said judges at the time desperately needed a pay increase and he was trying to be responsible by providing a method to pay for it.

What was not clear at the time, at least to many legislators, is that the law would be used by the chief justice to bypass the Legislature to provide a pay raise for himself and other members of the judiciary.

In the 2020 session, House Appropriations Chair John Read, R-Gautier, authored legislation that would have provided a judicial pay raise but would have removed the 2012 language that allowed the judges to set their own salary based on the Personnel Board report. The legislation passed the House, but died in the Senate Appropriations Committee, chaired by Sen. Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg.

In September 2020, less than six months after the 2020 legislation died, Randolph contacted the Personnel Board inquiring about its salary recommendation report for the judiciary. That recommendation was for about a cumulative $2 million increase for state judges starting in January 2021 — a pay increase greater than what was proposed in the 2020 House bill. Randolph enacted the pay raise based on that report.

During last week’s Legislative Budget Committee meeting, House Pro Tem Jason White, R-West, asked questions about one of the guidelines the legislative leaders adopted for developing a budget – a requirement that any across-the-board pay raise for an agency had to be approved by the Legislature.

“We got in a position, one particular agency where raises went into effect and we were kind of in a take it or leave it scenario,” White said.

“You mean the Supreme Court?” asked Hosemann.

“Yes sir,” White replied.

Referring to the 2012 law, Hopson said, “I think the statute probably trumps what we do…When we get back into session there needs to be something that confirms this (guideline.) We probably need to adjust the statute.”

Whether Hopson and other legislators will be willing to take the power to provide their own raises away from the judiciary remains to be seen. Many of the top legislative leaders are attorneys who often must appear before Randolph and the other justices in their private lives to argue cases. They might be reluctant to incur the ire of the Supreme Court.

Hosemann also is an attorney, but at age 75 has directed most of his active work life away from private law practice and toward public service, where he believes in the system set out by the nation’s and state’s founding fathers where the legislative branch appropriates public funds.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Powerful writing on racism could inspire SCOTUS to hear Mississippi case


This judge’s powerful writing on racism could inspire U.S. Supreme Court to hear Mississippi case

Editor’s note: This story contains graphic language. Also, you can read Judge James Graves’ complete dissent at the bottom of this story.

A dissent written by U.S. Court of Appeals Judge James Graves Jr. could play a key role in determining whether the will hear an appeal of a case that has, so far, upheld Mississippi’s Jim Crow-era constitutional provision written to keep Black people from .

Last month, the 5th U.S. Court of Appeals upheld a Mississippi constitutional provision that bans people convicted of certain felonies from voting. White leaders in Mississippi included most of those specific felonies in the state’s 1890 Constitution because they thought those crimes were more likely to be committed by African Americans.

Though attorneys challenging the provision in court say it has continued to disenfranchise Black Mississippians, a majority of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals did not agree. Following the appeals court’s ruling, plaintiff attorneys said they plan to appeal the lower court’s ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. They have 90 days from the final verdict that was issued on Aug. 24 the file the appeal.

Graves, a Black man from Mississippi who was appointed to the federal appeals court in 2010, wrote a 47-page dissent that outlines the state’s long and disturbing history of racism and its impact on America.

Rob McDuff, an attorney with the who is working on the case, said Graves’ dissent could increase the odds the Supreme Court will take up the case.

“A strong dissent like that of Justice Graves’ can highlight for the Supreme Court that this is an important case where the Court of Appeals is sharply divided,” said McDuff, who has argued four cases before the nation’s highest court. “This increases the chances the Supreme Court will take the case although it’s no guarantee.”

READ MORE: 5th Circuit upholds Jim Crow-era law written to keep Black Mississippians from voting

A majority of the 17 members of the Court of Appeals that heard the case acknowledged that the felony suffrage provision, like many in the 1890 Constitution, was intended to prevent African Americans, then a majority in the state, from voting. That reality would be difficult to deny.

“The plan is to invest permanently the powers of government in the hands of the people who ought to have them: the white people,” James Zachariah George, a U.S. senator who was one of the architects of the 1890 Constitution and to this day has a statue in the U.S. Capitol representing Mississippi, said at the time.

But the nine members of the court who made up the majority in the recent ruling said that when state lawmakers added murder and rape as disenfranchising crimes in 1968, “the racial taint” was removed because the original 1890 language crafted by George and others had been amended.

“The critical issue here is not the intent behind Mississippi’s 1890 Constitution, but whether the reenactment of Section 241 (the felony disenfranchisement language) in 1968 was free of intentional racial discrimination,” the nine-member majority wrote.

The majority concluded it was.

“Mississippi (represented by the office of Lynn Fitch) has conclusively shown that any taint associated with Section 241 has been cured,” the majority wrote last month in an unsigned opinion.

But in his blistering dissent, Graves methodically wrote that the racial taint had not at all been removed by state lawmakers in the 1960s.

He pointed out that the Legislature did not reenact Section 241 in 1968; it simply passed a provision to include murder and rape as disenfranchising crimes. Section 241 would have remained in effect regardless of whether the amendment adding murder and rape was approved by voters.

And perhaps more importantly, Graves pointed out many of the people in the Legislature and indeed the electorate as a whole at that time had been engaged in preventing Black Mississippians from voting and from integrating schools and society. Many of those same people had been engaged in violence against African Americans.

Graves cited Tom Brady, a member of the in 1968. Graves pointed out Brady wrote in a book that was available in many Mississippi schools: “You can dress a chimpanzee, housebreak him, and teach him to use a knife and fork, but it will take countless generations of evolutionary development, if ever, before you can convince him that a caterpillar or cockroach is not a delicacy. Likewise the social, economic and religious preferences of the Negro remain close to the caterpillar and the cockroach.”

Graves, in his dissent, also pointed out that in the mid 20the Century while Mississippi lawmakers were removing a racial taint from its state Constitution, according to the majority ruling, white South African leaders were traveling to Mississippi “to learn how best to keep their own Black population disempowered and impoverished in perpetuity,” and earlier Nazi leader Adolph Hitler proclaimed the goal of making a conquered region “our Mississippi.”

Graves cited a passage from a 1960s newspaper article detailing efforts during school desegregation when Mississippians were, according to the Court’s majority opinion, removing the racial taint from the felony suffrage provision of the 1890 Constitution.

“Some husky young men were whipping a little Negro girl with pigtails,” the reporter wrote. “She was running. The men chased after her, whooping and leaping up and down like animals.”

The dissent was filled with such reports of violence and of loss of life for African Americans.

Graves, a Clinton native, was one of the first African American circuit judges in the state – appointed to the post in 1991 by then-Gov. Ray Mabus. In 2001, he was appointed to the state Supreme Court by then-Gov. Ronnie Musgrove. President Barack Obama appointed him to a slot on the federal Court of Appeals in 2010.

Graves, in his dissent, recalled his own upbringing and life in Mississippi.

“Recounting Mississippi’s history forces me to relive my experiences growing up in the Jim Crow era,” he wrote. “While I do not rely on those experiences in deciding this case, I would be less than candid if I did not admit that I recall them. Vividly.

“So I confess that I remember in 1963 a cross that was burned on my grandmother’s lawn two doors down from where I grew up,” he wrote.

Graves goes on to recount his experiences with school desegregation, and his disdain after being appointed to the judiciary of having to serve under the state that contained the battle emblem as part of its design.

Graves also highlights actions in 2020 by the Legislature to replace the flag. But after that historic achievement, he pointed out Mississippi to this day is the only state to recognize a Confederate Heritage Month, and while other states recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Mississippi honors Confederate General Robert E. Lee on the same day.

“I recount these events, as a native Mississippian, only to highlight the importance of making the right decision in this case,” Graves wrote.

Read Judge Graves’ complete dissent below. His dissent begins on page 36.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

State government affected by Jackson water failure


State government operations affected by Jackson water system failure

Jackson’s water crisis is affecting state government, with some offices based in Jackson reporting closures, delayed or shortened schedules and reduced staffing.

The Department of Finance and Administration, which oversees and maintains state office buildings and grounds, directed inquiries about state office operations to Gov. Tate Reeves’ office, which did not respond to a request for comment.

But several state agencies have reported their status. They include:

Mississippi Department of Human Services 

The MDHS office in is closed due to lack of water. Hinds County DHS staff is working from other MDHS offices in the metro and continuing their eligibility appointments by phone and video conference. Clients with appointments in Hinds County may expect contact from the case manager around their scheduled appointment time. 

Applications for assistance and services may be completed online at Applications – Mississippi Department of Human Services (ms.gov)

Child Support Enforcement offices in Jackson are closed.  Please contact Child Support Customer Service at 877.882.4916 or visit one of the following locations:

  • Ridgeland
  • Yazoo City
  • Magee
  • Vicksburg
  • Forest 

MDHS programmatic staff are processing applications and receiving calls as they are received. 

Supreme Court, state courts

The received communications on Monday afternoon, Aug. 29, from the state Department of Finance and Administration and the State Personnel Board and reviewed announcements from the City of Jackson regarding water issues affecting the capital city.

After conferring with the Supreme Court Executive Committee and department heads, Chief Justice Mike Randolph announced that the Gartin Justice Building will temporarily operate with reduced staff on Tuesday.  Most staff of the appellate courts and the Administrative Office of Courts will work remotely.  No decision has been made as to how long the reduced staffing and remote operations will be necessary.

Chief Justice Randolph, in his capacity as chief administrative officer of all courts in the state, finds that consistent with the Constitution of the State of Mississippi, all courts shall remain open. The Supreme Court, the Mississippi Court of Appeals and the Administrative Office of Courts will operate with essential staffing to keep the courts open. The office of the Clerk of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals will remain open.

Presiding Justice Jim Kitchens said, “Because of COVID, we know how to operate remotely.”

Department of Archives and History/museums

The Two Mississippi Museums, Eudora Welty House & Garden, and the archives library will be closed Tuesday, August 30, 2022, due to the low water pressure in Jackson.

Follow us on FacebookInstagram, or Twitter for updates. 

Visit www.mdah.ms.gov/explore-mississippi for more information about our one-of-a-kind museums, historical sites and cultural attractions throughout the state. Learn more about researching at archives here.

Driver’s License Services

Due to the water emergency in the city limits of Jackson, Mississippi, the Driver’s Service Bureau located at 1900 E. Woodrow Wilson Ave. in Jackson, Mississippi will be closed until further notice.

Driver’s Service staff will relocate to the Pearl Office/Troop C located at 3851 Highway 468 West, Pearl, Mississippi, 39208. This location will be appointment only. We encourage you to visit our website for any additional information.

“We appreciate your patience during this crisis in Jackson,” said Deputy Commissioner Keith Davis. “I assure you that our staff is committed to working and providing the customer service you come to expect from the Mississippi Department of Public Safety. We apologize for this inconvenience.

Attorney General’s office

AG spokeswoman Michelle Williams said: “Some are teleworking. Many are in the office.  We are asking everyone to go to the ground floor to use the restroom.”

Secretary of State

Office buildings located in the Jackson area are temporarily closed to the public due to the ongoing Jackson water crisis. All staff and resources are still available and will continue to provide first class service to all Mississippians by responding to emails, answering calls, and aiding with online resources.

For assistance, call 601-359-1350 during business hours or visit our website, sos.ms.gov, for more information. We will continue to provide updates, as necessary.

Department of Insurance

As of midday, Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney said his staff was working in the Woolfolk state office building downtown, though he said the water pressure was low.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

5 reasons lawmakers might not want to restore the ballot initiative


5 reasons lawmakers might not want to restore the ballot initiative

Mississippi is the only state in the modern era to rescind its initiative process that allowed voters to bypass the Legislature and place issues directly on the ballot.

In 2021 the ruled unconstitutional the signature-gathering process as spelled out in the Constitution to place issues on the ballot. The ruling resulted in a initiative approved by voters in November 2020 and the entire initiative process being found to be invalid.

The Legislature could not agree during the 2022 session on language to revive the initiative process.

If the Legislature did restore the initiative, there would be at least five issues that could be the subject of initiative efforts. Those five issues, all opposed by many of the state’s political leaders, might be the reason legislators are reluctant to revive the initiative.

Those five initiatives would:

  • Expand .
  • Allow early .
  • Approve recreational marijuana.
  • Restore abortion rights.
  • Allow people convicted of felonies to regain their voting rights at some point after they complete their sentence.

No doubt, there are other issues that most likely would be the subject of initiative efforts if the process was restored. Generally, initiatives are undertaken when legislators refuse to act on issues, such as on medical marijuana recently and on voter identification in 2011.

Medical marijuana was being rejected by the Legislature as a whole. In 2011, one chamber of the Legislature – the Democratic-controlled House – was blocking the enactment of a voter ID requirement.

Just like with medical marijuana and voter ID, the five issues cited above are currently being blocked by key legislators.

Medicaid expansion

Mississippi is one of 12 states that have not expanded Medicaid to provide health insurance for primarily the working poor. The two biggest obstacles to Medicaid expansion have been House Speaker Philip Gunn and Gov. Tate Reeves, who argue the state cannot afford to cover Mississippi’s share of the costs. Various studies have concluded that the expansion would actually be a boon to state coffers since the federal government would pay the bulk of the costs.

Various diverse groups ranging from the Mississippi Hospital Association to the Delta Council have endorsed expansion.

Early voting

Despite the rhetoric of former and many of his supporters bemoaning the evils of early voting, 46 states allow no excuse early voting and 27 permit voting by mail. And most states were allowing the various forms of early voting long before the 2020 election and the pandemic.

And truth be known, early voting has long been popular. Still, Reeves and other Mississippi politicians proudly proclaim they will block any effort to place Mississippi within the mainstream of states by enacting no excuse early voting.

Recreational marijuana

Like with early voting and Medicaid expansion, there was a recreational marijuana initiative being considered when the Mississippi Supreme Court shut down the initiative process.

And granted, it might be a long shot that Mississippi voters would approve recreational marijuana. But marijuana supporters in Arkansas garnered significantly more signatures than needed to place the issue on the November ballot.

If Arkansans approve or come close to approving recreational marijuana in November, that could be a sign that Mississippians also are willing to consider the issue.

Felony suffrage

Mississippi is one of a few states (less than 10) that do not restore voting rights to people convicted of felonies at some point after they complete their sentence. The felony suffrage provision was incorporated into the 1890 Constitution by those attempting to prevent African Americans from voting.

Voters in Florida recently voted via ballot initiative to restore voting rights to people convicted of felonies.

Abortion rights

Granted, it has long been perceived that Mississippians as a whole are staunchly anti-abortion. But after the June ruling by the in the Mississippi decision – Dobbs v. – overturning and rescinding a national right to an abortion, there has been a hue and cry by some to let Mississippians vote on the issue. After all, people who support abortion rights figure they have nothing to lose since existing Mississippi laws ban most abortions.

And there are a few reasons to give abortion rights supporters hope. For instance, in Kansas, a conservative state like Mississippi, voters recently rejected an anti-abortion proposal at the ballot box.

In addition, when Mississippians voted on abortion in 2011, they overwhelmingly defeated the “Personhood” initiative that defined life as beginning at conception. Plus, recent polling indicates that a vote on abortion in Mississippi might be close.

But unless the Legislature restores the initiative, we may never know how Mississippians feel about these issues and others.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Should Mississippi, like Kansas, vote on abortion?


Should Mississippi, like Kansas, vote on abortion? Would the outcome differ?

In Mississippi, like Kansas, the Supreme Court has said the state Constitution provides a right to an .

The Kansas Supreme Court made its ruling in 2019. The Mississippi ruling came in 1998.

In an effort to supersede the Kansas Supreme Court ruling, the Legislature placed on the ballot a proposal to proclaim that the state Constitution does not include abortion rights.

That proposal was defeated Tuesday by Kansas voters by a 59% to 41% margin, meaning abortion remains legal in the state viewed as one of the most conservative in the nation.

Mississippi’s Supreme Court ruling said, “While we do not interpret our Constitution as recognizing an explicit right to an abortion, we believe that autonomous bodily integrity is protected under the right to privacy … Protected within the right of autonomous bodily integrity is an implicit right to have an abortion.”

There are two ways to reverse that 1998 Supreme Court ruling. The high court in a new case could overturn it. But since there is no abortion case pending before the Supreme Court, it is difficult to ascertain how such a reversal could occur. Another option would be to attempt what Kansas tried to do and amend the Constitution to state explicitly there is no right to an abortion. Like in Kansas, the proposal to amend the Constitution also would require voter approval.

The question then is whether the outcome in Mississippi would be different than in Kansas. Most observers were surprised that the anti-abortion proposal in Kansas was defeated. attorney Rob McDuff, who has defended abortion rights, said he is not so sure the outcome here would be different than in Kansas.

“Mississippi is a conservative state in many ways, but a lot of people here believe in the rights of the individual and believe government should not dictate a person’s beliefs,” McDuff said. “For centuries, people have debated and disagreed about the fundamental question of when life begins.”

McDuff continued: “When a woman is faced with the possibility of carrying a pregnancy inside her own body and bearing a child against her will, I think most Mississippians believe this is a decision for her to make in light of her own beliefs, and perhaps in consultation with her family and her doctor and her pastor, and not a decision for the majority of the state Legislature. That is what Mississippians said the last time they were asked this question in 2011, when, by a wide margin, they voted no on an amendment that would have banned abortion for purposes of our state Constitution. I expect the answer would be the same today. Recent polling in Mississippi bears that out.”

A recent poll commissioned by the ACLU of Mississippi found 51% opposed the overturning of that provided a national right to an abortion.

In 2012, after Mississippi voters rejected the so-called “personhood” amendment that stated life begins at conception, Speaker Philip Gunn authored a resolution saying abortion was not a constitutional right. That resolution died in the House Constitution Committee. Had it been passed by a two-thirds vote of both legislative chambers and been approved by voters, it would have overturned the 1998 Supreme Court ruling saying the Mississippi Constitution granted the right to an abortion.

Gunn, who was in his first year as speaker in 2012, said recently he did not remember details about the proposal. When asked if the House might take up a similar proposal in the 2023 session, he said, “We are looking at a lot of things.”

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, ignoring the Supreme Court ruling, recently said, “I don’t think we need a constitutional amendment in Mississippi because we have a state statute which speaks to that. The only abortion clinic that operated in our state is now closed, I don’t know that it has to be in the Constitution.”

It’s true that laws banning most abortions in the state went into effect when the overturned the national constitutional right to an abortion in a landmark case from Mississippi. The practical effect of those laws is that abortions are not being performed in Mississippi.

But that 1998 decision hangs out there. At some point, there could be a conflict in the Mississippi judicial system between that constitutional right to an abortion as cited by the and the normally lesser-in-the-eyes of the judiciary laws or statutes.

At the very least, by ignoring that Supreme Court ruling, a precedent is being established in the state that the Mississippi Supreme Court can be — well, ignored.

A simple way to resolve the conflict between state law and the Mississippi Constitution is to let the people vote like they did in Kansas.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

In Mississippi, Christian forgiveness does not equate to felony voting reforms


In Mississippi, Christian forgiveness does not equate to felony voting reforms

As Haley Barbour faced an onslaught of criticism for pardoning dozens of people convicted of felonies as his tenure as governor ended in 2012, he cited his Christian beliefs for his actions.

“Christianity teaches us forgiveness and second chances. I believe in second chances, and I try hard to be forgiving,” the former governor said soon after leaving office of the more than 200 acts of clemency he granted.

During his eight years as governor, Barbour, like most other Mississippi politicians, did nothing to make that forgiveness more inclusive by creating a system that would make it easier for the literally tens of thousands of people convicted of felonies to have their rights restored.

Most Mississippi politicians wear their Christianity on their sleeve. The primary tenet of the Christian faith is forgiveness and redemption. Yet, they do not see as part of that forgiveness and redemption the restoration of voting rights for people convicted of felonies.

Multiple studies have made the argument that restoring voting rights increases the odds that people who have been convicted of felonies will become productive members of society.

Dennis Hopkins, a 46-year-old Potts Camp resident who lost his right to vote as a teenager when he was convicted of grand larceny, but is now a productive member of the community in the north Mississippi hamlet, explained to lawmakers the importance of voting.

“Voting to me is everything,” Hopkins said in 2021 during a legislative hearing. “I tell my kids how important the vote is … it shames me to tell them I can’t vote.”

The old adage that the judicial system moves slowly has never been truer than when it comes to Mississippi’s one-in-the-nation system of preventing people convicted of certain felonies from regaining their voting rights.

On Sept. 25, 2021 (more than 10 months ago), the entire panel of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments about whether Mississippi’s felony disenfranchisement is unconstitutional. Seventeen judges heard the argument at the federal courthouse in New Orleans. It is not an everyday occurrence for the entire panel to hear oral arguments, so the assumption was that the federal appeals court was placing a priority on the issue.

But since that September day, there have been crickets from the court.

At some point, the court finally will issue a ruling.

In Mississippi, people with felony convictions must petition the Legislature to get a bill passed by a two-thirds majority of both chambers to regain voting rights. Normally only a handful (less than five) of such bills are successful each session. There is also the option of the governor granting a pardon to restore voting rights. But no governor has granted pardons since Barbour in 2012.

For a subset of those who lose their rights, the courts can expunge their record. In some instances that expungement includes the restoration of voting rights and for others it does not. It just depends on the preference of the judge granting the expungement.

During the 2022 session, legislation was passed clarifying that the judicial expungement would always include the restoration of voting rights. That modest legislation would have been the biggest change to the state’s felony voting system since it was incorporated into the Mississippi Constitution in 1890. But it was vetoed by Gov. Tate Reeves.

The in past decisions has given the states broad leeway in stripping the right to vote for those convicted of felonies. But it is worth pointing out that Mississippi is in a distinct minority of states (less than 10) not automatically restoring voting rights at some point after a sentence is completed.

The aforementioned 5th Circuit is considering the argument that the Mississippi felony voting ban is unconstitutional because it was placed in the 1890 state Constitution as one of many provisions intended to prevent African Americans from voting. If it was done for racial reasons, then it should be unconstitutional, the proponents of the argue. Mississippi Lynn Fitch opposes the lawsuit.

In the 1890s, the wrote the disfranchisement of people of specific felonies was placed in the Constitution “to obstruct the exercise of the franchise by the negro race” by targeting “the offenses to which its weaker members were prone.” The crimes selected by lawmakers to go into the provision were thought by the white political leaders at the time as more likely to be committed by African Americans. They also imposed poll taxes, literacy tests, segregated schools, a ban of mixed race marriages and other racist provisions into the Constitution.

They, of course, took all of those steps in the name of Christianity.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Inside Mississippi’s false promise of putting the Family First


Inside Mississippi’s false promise of putting the Family First

The that Mississippi was revamping its foster care system had reached countless officials, churches and charities across the state before Justice Dawn Beam realized: The plan was never going to take root.

It was September of 2018, just weeks after Beam and then-First Lady Deborah Bryant launched the Family First Initiative with a splash. They named the project after federal legislation that could have provided the state an unprecedented boost of funding to help poor families — a law the state had just chosen not to implement.

The federal Family First Prevention Services Act, bipartisan reforms passed by Congress that year, was meant to encourage states to use a proactive approach to dealing with child neglect, which is the cause of more than 3-in-5 family separations and is often the product of poverty. 

The federal government would pump new foster care dollars, or title IV-E funding, into states to use on stabilizing services for biological families, as opposed to on traditional orphanages or group homes.

By mid-2018, when the initiative launched, Mississippi had already begun rapidly reducing the number of children in its custody, which was bloated due to the drug epidemic, by enforcing new standards for separation at the courts. The Family First Initiative, heavily promoted by two now-embattled welfare officials John Davis and Nancy New, would go beyond that, promising more than a change in philosophy.

“We’re going to have the greatest support we’ve ever seen from Washington, D.C., to the Capitol in Jackson,” then-Gov. Phil Bryant said at the July 2018 Family First Summit announcing the state’s new direction in foster care. “We’re going to have the rest of the nation looking at Mississippi and saying, ‘If they can do it there, you can do it anywhere, and they’re doing it better than anyone else.’”

The claim was widely repeated. “State to Be National Model for Keeping Families Together,” reads one Mississippi Public Broadcasting headline at the time.

But the state never submitted such a plan to the federal government, Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services confirmed to Mississippi Today. At the same time, millions of other federal funds the state could have used to serve this mission instead went to the pet projects of politicians or celebrity athletes and enriched their friends and family.

To this day, Mississippi has not participated or pulled down the Family First federal funding. 

Instead, the state continues to use funding from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program — known as “welfare” and the subject of a massive ongoing state and federal investigation — to plug holes at the state’s notoriously underfunded foster care agency.

There’s no data to show how the state met the needs of poor families in order to prevent family separations under this initiative or how the state carries out this mission today. 

Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Dawn Beam describes her child welfare initiative, Family First, in a 2018 video.

When Beam learned that Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services, a department under the governor’s office, chose to delay the Family First plan, she sent Bryant a letter.

“You and I both represented to the public at the Family First Summit on July 30, 2018 that Mississippi is going to be a model for putting families first and embracing the Act. Certainly, the Executive Branch of government makes the decisions regarding implementation and timing; however, I have put the credibility of the Court on the line by repeating that Mississippi is embracing the Act all over our State,” she wrote on Sept. 17, 2018. “…this ‘delay in implementation’ is not embracing a new day in Mississippi.”

Beam is an outspoken child welfare advocate who had cleaned up a caseworker backlog in her home county before Bryant appointed her to the Supreme Court in late 2015. She described the governor’s reaction to her letter in one word: “Furious!”

Bryant held a meeting with his judicial appointee.

“He yelled at me in a meeting with Chief Justice Waller and Judge John Hudson present,” Beam told Mississippi Today by text, speaking in an individual capacity and not as a representative of the Supreme Court. “He said, ‘Don’t you know that all letters to my office are subject to a document request.’ I tell the truth and was protecting my own integrity and that of the court so I made no apology.”

That was the moment Beam said she realized the governor’s office was not going to follow through with its commitment. In an April 2022 interview with Mississippi Today, Bryant did not seem to know much about Family First or why his administration rejected the act even though he publicly supported it.

“I cannot imagine they would not have worked diligently to try to get those funds,” Bryant said. “… I don’t know if there were something within that act that we later found out was offensive.”

Former Gov. Phil Bryant speaks at the 2018 Family First Summit, where he suggested Mississippi would be a national model for implementing the federal Family First Prevention Services Act. “No longer will Mississippi allow our children to live in poverty,” the video caption reads.

Bryant’s appointed CPS commissioner at the time, former Justice Jess Dickinson, argued in a 2018 letter against immediately implementing the act, which would have provided the state unlimited dollar-for-dollar matching funds to help families in poverty. Since the agency was already choosing to use federal welfare funds from the Mississippi Department of Human Services to supplement its paltry legislative appropriation, Dickinson said the agency wouldn’t have seen a net financial benefit from the Family First Act. He also had concerns over how pulling down that funding for preventative services would jeopardize the state’s existing federal funding for group homes — most of which wouldn’t qualify under new requirements in the act.

The act forced states to shift financial focus away from group homes and to preventative services, since the point of the federal program was to keep kids with their families and reduce the number of children in orphanages. Dickinson, who argued the state was already achieving this goal, recommended delaying Mississippi’s start date from October 2019 to October 2021, the latest date states were given to comply with the act.

Without structural buy-in, Beam and Deborah Bryant’s initiative did more than fall flat for families in need. 

It also helped provide a guise for the misspending of tens of millions of federal grant funds from the Mississippi Department of Human Services, a distinct yet closely related agency to CPS.

The Family First Initiative, which fell under the Mississippi Commission on Children’s Justice created by the Mississippi Supreme Court in 2006, emphasized how it coordinated its efforts despite “virtually no funding.”

But the similarly named Families First for Mississippi, the now disgraced government program run by two private nonprofits, was supposed to serve as the resource arm of the initiative and had as much as $40 million a year in flexible welfare funds from DHS at its disposal. 

A video promoting the Family First Initiative, the unfunded judicial project, highlights the story of a mother named Sherniqua Thedford, who was able to transform her life because of help she received from the state — not from the new initiative but from a DHS case worker within the traditional TANF program.

Then the video cuts to Nancy New, founder of one of the nonprofits running Families First, Mississippi Community Education Center, to which the state was increasingly outsourcing the TANF program.

“It is a true compassionate service that we are offering,” New said, “and we want them to walk into an environment now that they’re not intimidated and I think that’s what they’re seeing through Families First. And it’s already happening. We’re seeing the connecting the dots. That’s what we’re doing so the people of Mississippi can become stronger.”

Founder of Mississippi Community Education Center Nancy New, who has pleaded guilty to fraud, bribery and racketeering, speaks in a 2018 video promoting the Family First Initiative. She was joined by Christi Webb, director of the Family Resource Center of North Mississippi, who partnered on the initiative.

The overall idea was that poverty is a community problem that can be solved by providing resources — training, child care and tangible items like beds and refrigerators — to parents, instead of pulling children from their homes.

Instead, New’s nonprofit was spending millions on vague contracts for motivational speaking or outreach from famous athletes and their friends, expensive vehicles, investments in a pharmaceutical startup and construction of a volleyball stadium, to name a few. New and her son Zach New pleaded guilty in April to several charges including bribery, fraud and racketeering related to the welfare grants. In a separate civil , Nancy New says former Gov. Phil Bryant was just as responsible for the misspending and even directed some of the questionable purchases. Bryant denied this assertion.

Forensic auditors determined at least $77 million was improperly spent during the last four years of Bryant’s administration.

Thedford said Family First organizers told her she was being tapped as a spokesperson for the initiative, but after the luncheon at the Westin Hotel during the 2018 summit, “it was absolutely nothing.”

“They were supposed to get back with me and then all of a sudden I heard the money disappeared,” Thedford said. “I was hearing through the grapevine, ‘We don’t have the funding for it.’ That’s how I heard it at first. But then I heard somebody stole the funds.”

Through the TANF program years ago, Thedford received cash assistance that she said “helped me stay afloat” while her case worker helped her find a job. Thedford said without that assistance, she’d likely still be living in public housing where she started. Today, she’s a branch manager at a bank, solidifying her place in the middle class.

Currently, this program serves about 222 adults in Mississippi.

“For people to just take that away from so many people like me, that’s disturbing. That actually makes you sick to your stomach,” Thedford said. “… The one person that helped me that could have created thousands of people to help thousands of me, for that to be taken away, that is sickening.”

Beam shared a similar sentiment.

“I can’t understand anybody in the state who has a moral bone, when they know that we’re the poorest state in the union, that we have families that are suffering, why they wouldn’t just get up and want to work,” Beam said of social service providers in Mississippi.

The justice spotted trouble early on. 

On Sept. 10, 2018, Beam emailed Nancy New after attending a steering meeting in one of the counties selected to pilot the Family First Initiative. One of the only visible functions of the initiative were the community meetings they held across the state where family court officials, charities, churches and other stakeholders could discuss the needs in their area.

“I was extremely embarrassed tonight at the meeting by the lack of presence in Pearl River County of Families First Services,” Beam wrote. “Although you had two people there the young lady from kept talking about all of these services that Families First provides and coalition in that area but no one in Pearl River County Leadership including judges that work every day in it has seen anyone.”

“I was ready to go under the table!!!!!!!!!” Beam added.

Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Dawn Beam (middle), Mississippi Department of Human Services director John Davis (right) and MDHS client Sherniqua Thedford present at an event announcing the Family First Initiative in 2018.

Both Nancy New and Mississippi Department of Human Services Director John Davis responded to Beam, explaining that they were still working to expand Families First to all areas of the state. In his response, Davis appealed to Beam’s religious bent. Beam is the daughter of former Mississippi Baptist Convention president and preacher Gene Henderson and sister to Pinelake Baptist Church pastor Chip Henderson.

“My book tells me that the author of confusion is not someone we serve…better still we serve the problem solver,” Davis wrote to Beam.

Davis shared his reply with Ted “Teddy” DiBiase Jr., a retired WWE wrestler who appeared to be an executive employee of MDHS and sat on Family First Initiative’s advisory council – though he was being paid by New’s nonprofit. He received over $3 million. DiBiase starred in one of the dramatic video advertisements that marketing firm Cirlot Agency was paid hundreds of thousands of welfare dollars to produce.

“Praaaaaiiiiissssee Jesus Wow…” DiBiase responded to Davis’ email, “never in my life have I ever heard so much said without saying much at all. Well put sir.”

The success of both the judicial initiative and the welfare program, multiple sources told Mississippi Today, relied on a sophisticated resource referral and tracking computer system, which would connect families to the services that met their needs and allow the state to follow up with clients and measure outcomes. 

Two days after Beam and Bryant’s heated meeting, Davis told Gov. Bryant in a letter that the welfare department and Families First for Mississippi would have to budget $5 million in TANF funds to develop this system on behalf of the court.

The system could have revolutionized the state’s public safety net, sources say. But the investment – which was the same amount New paid to build a volleyball stadium at University of Southern Mississippi for Brett Favre – never came.

“That (referral tracking system) did not materialize and that’s the most heartbreaking thing,” Beam told Mississippi Today.

The prospective budget Davis sent Bryant also included $600,000 to the Cirlot Agency for marketing and branding, $200,000 annually for each new Families First center in the pilot counties and $20,000 per year for salaries assigned to Justice Beam.

In the public record, Mississippi Today found no written response to this letter.

Beam told Mississippi Today she had never seen this budget breakdown. And while the justice employed two people under the court to run the Family First Initiative, Beam said she never received funding from MDHS to pay her staffers’ salaries.

Davis also wrote that Families First for Mississippi was providing other services to aid the initiative and that each service “has associated costs.”

“We very much appreciate the courts (sic) involvement and need it to be successful in reaching all the families and children who need these services,” Davis wrote. “Currently the policy is being directed by the Executive Branch. However, if the Supreme Courts initiative remains on the course it has chosen, there could be decisions which cross the Judicial and Executive Branch lines.”

One reason it appears the state chose to use TANF funding instead of pulling down new foster care funding, is that Family First Act funding requires a new state match, whereas using TANF did not.

“On the one hand, there isn’t a financial incentive to opt into this paradigm because of the need to invest more state dollars;” a child welfare policy expert said in a 2018 email to a Bryant staffer, “on the other, accessing the federal funds for the front-end work would allow TANF to be repurposed for something else.”

The expert also noted that the TANF funds necessary to build the computer system hadn’t been allocated and asked for an explanation. There was no response to this email within the archived file containing Family First records.

Mississippi used $20.1 million of its TANF dollars on child welfare in 2018, $27.1 million in 2019 and $21.8 million in 2020, according to the state’s reporting to the federal government. A spokesperson for Child Protection Services told Mississippi Today that the agency had received $35 million in TANF to “fill ‘budget holes’” in 2021 and that it currently receives up to $30 million in TANF annually, representing 20% of its budget. TANF spending on grants to nonprofits has significantly declined since the scandal, resulting in an unused balance of nearly $50 million in federal funds, according to the most recent available reports.

Beyond the tension over how the initiative would be financially supported, there was another problem: people were confusing the Family First Initiative and Families First for Mississippi, not just because of their similar names and overlapping leaders, but because the company hired to market both groups, Cirlot Agency, used the same logo for each project. 

From the beginning, Beam expressed concern over how Cirlot, which was recording meetings and producing dazzling videos for the initiative, was being compensated. 

Davis responded that the state agency had an “ongoing work relationship” with Cirlot and that his deputy would check to ensure “everything is properly procured and in-line with all funding stream requirements.”

But it wasn’t, auditors found.

A state audit released almost two years later revealed that New’s nonprofit improperly paid Cirlot Agency a whopping $1.7 million for various branding and planning work, including $300,000 for materials it developed for Beam’s judicial initiative. Federal regulations prohibit states from using welfare money on many of these services, the audit states. Cirlot continues to partner with the state in its programs for children.

“We don’t think we did a thing wrong and did everything according to how we were contracted to do it,” Cirlot CEO Liza Cirlot Looser told Mississippi Today.

Looser said her company was not aware of the source of the funds. Officials have not accused Cirlot of any wrongdoing or instructed Cirlot to return the funds.

On Dec. 16, 2018, Cirlot Agency President Rick Looser met with Beam to recommend she change the name of her initiative to something else, in part because of the similarity to the program run by Nancy New. Beam, bothered by what had occurred, described her demeanor in the meeting as quiet and reserved.

Rick Looser told Mississippi Today that Beam never followed up with Cirlot to move forward with the rebranding and that it was their last meeting. The company did no more work for the initiative after that, Looser said.

For the rest of the initiative’s first year, little took place, Beam said.

The justice said that as she became uncomfortable with the insincerity of the mission, she began to back away from the initiative. 

Reporter tweeting from the Oct. 3, 2018 Family First steering committee meeting.

In July of 2019, Cindy Cheeks, the court’s coordinator for the initiative, sent an email with a link to the Family First annual report to dozens of stakeholders, such as Phil Bryant’s then-chief of staff Joey Songy, state agency and nonprofit employees, church officials and judges.

The initiative had struggled to demonstrate a consistent objective or measure its impact.

A court press release announcing the launch of the initiative had explained plainly: “If children are sleeping on the floor, someone out there has beds to donate. If the house is dirty, would a group of church volunteers be willing to help clean it?”

But the annual report does not provide any examples in which the initiative facilitated a person in poverty receiving a bed or having their home cleaned.

In the report, the initiative does take credit for the pilot counties that expanded free legal services or provided child care assistance to parents receiving a GED, for example, but it did not provide specifics about how the pilots propped up or paid for the programs, how the services differed from what they would have already provided independent of the initiative, or what the outcomes were.

The annual report contains no data about how many people the initiative assisted and offers only one anecdote about an actual person it helped: members of the initiative coordinated to repair the home of a disabled veteran after a storm.

Beam had a hard time offering her own specific examples of families the initiative assisted: “I’m not on the ground floor,” she said.

“The work that we have done is just because of good Mississippians stepping up,” Beam later added. “Because great stuff is going on, but if we had the resources that Mississippi was entitled to, there’s no telling what we could do.”

When Mississippi Today recently asked Cheeks, the initiative’s full-time coordinator, what the Family First Initiative accomplished, she answered, “What we did, which you know that was very centered around the courts, and then when COVID hit, it shut down a little bit of our operations, but something that we learned through that initiative is that it’s so important to have local resources identified for your different children intercepts — courts, schools. And so, we had eight pilot counties that built coalitions and we learned the effectiveness of coalitions in preventing the removal of children unnecessarily due to neglect.”

The initiative’s 2019 annual report said that 2020 would be the year of full implementation and in 2021, they would evaluate effectiveness of the services.

“We are excited about this great foundational first year and looking forward to year 2 to come,” Cheeks wrote in her 2019 email.

But there wouldn’t be a second year. By then, the auditor’s office had begun an investigation into Davis and his management of the welfare program, which would lead to what officials call the largest public embezzlement case in state history. 

The Family First Initiative quietly dissolved.

Like the now-defunct Families First for Mississippi program – which handed out glossy brochures advertising services that, in some cases, it didn’t even offer – the Family First Initiative ended up being more of a marketing campaign than a true disruption of the cycle of poverty.

“For too long we talk about problems but we don’t really address them, and today we are saying that we are going to put our families first,” Beam told SuperTalk talk show host Paul Gallo during a broadcast of the 2018 summit. 

“Please pay attention,” Gallo told his listeners, “because number one, this will change lives. It’s a new initiative that Justice Beam has been working on, and other folks, First Lady, the governor.”

In an interview on the same day with New and Davis, Gallo quipped, “Sometimes it just takes people like Nancy New and John Davis … to say we’re not going to do this anymore. We’re going to take the lead on this.”

Since then, state prosecutors have nabbed both New and Davis on charges including bribery and fraud — New reached a plea deal while Davis is still pleading not guilty — and they each face potential prison time.

By the end of 2020, the number of children in state custody had dropped by about a third, from 5,872 in December of 2017 to 3,738 in December of 2020. With a caseload of 3,888 in June of 2022, the size of the foster care population has been relatively unchanged since 2020 and experts say will only grow following the state’s new ban on almost all abortions.

Today, the child welfare agency is benefitting from a cash infusion made possible by pandemic relief funds. But neither state agency leaders nor lawmakers have indicated any plans to stop using TANF dollars to shore up Child Protection Services’ budget in the long term.

Meanwhile, the welfare program continues to dwindle. Since the scandal broke, the number of needy families receiving cash assistance, the first tenet of the TANF program, remains on the decline, while Mississippi Department of Human Services has also provided far fewer grants to service providers, building up a unused balance of federal TANF funds in the tens of millions, according to the latest available federal data.

The Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services, now overseen by Commissioner Andrea Sanders, is also still failing to meet settlement requirements within a long running lawsuit over the state’s foster care system, in which plaintiffs say the state failed to protect kids in its custody. 

The agency says it is working on submitting a Family First Act plan that will meet the criteria for pulling down new federal funding, an agency spokesperson told Mississippi Today.

“Beginning her tenure a little over a year ago, Commissioner Sanders discovered that (Family First) plan submission is beneficial to Mississippi families and children and has tasked her team with drafting a comprehensive plan,” an agency statement reads. “Our agency is intentionally developing a plan that focuses on more proactive prevention of child abuse while prioritizing child safety.”

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Mississippi abortion: technically legal and illegal


Mississippi, where abortion is technically both legal and illegal at the same time

Despite the current ban imposed by state law, a brave doctor could theoretically perform the medical procedure and argue in court that she was acting based on what the said was legal.

Of course, a doctor challenging the law might be labeled as foolish instead of brave since the physician would run the risk of losing her medical license and face the specter of being sentenced to prison under conditions of the state law banning abortion. No telling how judges in Mississippi might rule on the issue.

But the fact remains that Mississippi is in this strange place where abortions no longer are being performed because of state law yet there is a Supreme Court decision saying the Mississippi Constitution provides abortion rights. And a ninth grade civics student learns that the constitution supersedes state laws.

Based on that 1998 Supreme Court ruling in , — what had been the state’s only abortion clinic — recently filed a asking that the state abortion ban law be blocked. Many assumed that the ultimate outcome of the lawsuit would be that a lower court would grant, perhaps reluctantly, the motion to postpone the ban and then the state would appeal to the Mississippi Supreme Court, which would issue a ruling reversing the 1998 decision that said there was a constitutional right to an abortion.

But Chancellor Debbra Halford of Franklin County, appointed by state Supreme Court Justice Michael Randolph to hear the case, took a different path. She refused to block the abortion ban.

Halford pointed out that the had reversed , which provided the federal constitutional right to an abortion. She reasoned that the 1998 state state Supreme Court ruling was made because the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in Roe v. Wade that abortion was legal based on rights under the U.S. Constitution. 

But Halford could not cite where the Mississippi Supreme Court said in the 1998 ruling that abortion was a right under the Mississippi Constitution contingent on Roe v. Wade. The state Supreme Court majority opinion said in 1998 abortion was a right under the Mississippi Constitution, separate and apart from Roe.

Further, Halford, proving she was a soothsayer as well as a legal scholar, said that when the case got back before the state Supreme Court, it would reverse the 1998 ruling. She most likely is correct, and we’ll find out soon because the clinic appealed her ruling to the state Supreme Court.

But what if the abortion rights supporters stopped their lawsuit after the Halford decision? The state would have been left in the aforementioned strange place where there was a law banning abortion even though there was a constitutional right to an abortion as stated in the 1998 Mississippi Supreme Court ruling. Halford’s ruling did not overturn that 1998 Supreme Court ruling.

It could be argued that Jackson Women’s Health Organization is doing the state a favor by appealing the Halford decision, giving the Supreme Court the opportunity to reverse the 1998 decision or proclaim unequivocally the state constitution provides abortion rights.

In 1996, then-U.S. Judge William Barbour of the Southern District of Mississippi prevented some restrictions placed on abortion clinics by the state from taking effect.

Barbour of Yazoo City, a relative of former Gov. Haley Barbour, said at the time he was personally opposed to abortion and the decision he was making pained him, but it was the only decision he could make since Roe v. Wade was the law of the land.

Late last month, of course, the U.S. Supreme Court in a landmark decision reversed Roe v. Wade, meaning abortion rights no longer are guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution. That ruling led to the current abortion ban in Mississippi.

But while Roe was the law, scores of federal judges, even those who opposed abortion like William Barbour, issued rulings protecting abortion rights because, they said, they did not have the authority to overrule the U.S. Supreme Court.

Just like Roe v. Wade was the governing authority for Barbour and all those lower court federal judges, Pro-Choice was and is the precedent for all the lower court state judges in Mississippi.

Just as the U.S. Supreme Court can and did overturn Roe v. Wade, the Mississippi Supreme Court can and most likely will overturn Pro-Choice Mississippi v. Fordice.

But William Barbour pointed out in 1996 that is a decision for the Supreme Court, not for the lower courts.

READ MORE: FAQ — Abortion in Mississippi post-Roe v. Wade

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Mississippi Supreme Court blocks more DNA tests in death row case


rssfeeds.hattiesburgamerican.com – Mississippi Clarion Ledger – 2022-07-05 13:53:02

Willie Jerome Manning

A has ruled that a row inmate will not be allowed to seek additional DNA testing on scene evidence from the shooting deaths of two college students nearly 30 years ago.

Willie Jerome Manning, now 54, remains in the at Parchman. He was convicted in 1994 on two counts of capital murder in the December 1992 killings of…

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Judge refuses to stop abortion ban from going into effect Thursday


Judge refuses to stop abortion ban from going into effect Thursday

Chancery Judge Debbra Halford refused to block Mississippi’s ban from going into effect on Thursday despite a 1998 ruling from the Supreme Court saying the state Constitution grants abortion rights.

Just hours after a 45-minute Tuesday morning hearing, Halford issued the eight-page decision ruling on Tuesday afternoon refusing to side with the state’s only abortion provider, , which had requested a temporary restraining order to prevent laws from going into effect banning most abortions in Mississippi.

Abortion rights groups had argued that laws banning abortions in the state could not go into effect until a 1998 state Supreme Court decision, , was overturned. The 1998 decision, the abortion rights supporters argued, could only be overturned by the .

But in ruling against the abortion rights groups, Halford said that it is likely that the current state Supreme Court will uphold the Mississippi laws banning most abortions now that the has ruled that abortion is not a protected right under the federal Constitution.

Halford wrote that since a right to an abortion as granted by the U.S. Constitution “is no longer the law of the land, reliance upon Fordice almost certainly will not be well-founded when pursuing this case in the (state) Supreme Court.”

“We are going to review the decision and consider our options,” said Jackson attorney Rob McDuff of the . McDuff and Hillary Schneller, senior staff attorney for the Center for Reproductive Rights, represented Jackson Women’s Health Organization in Tuesday’s hearing in the Chancery Court building.

They argued that Halford should halt the abortions ban from taking effect because the 1998 ruling by the state Supreme Court was the law of the land in Mississippi. It would take a new ruling from the state Supreme to reverse the 1998 ruling.

“The primary issue before you is whether the decision of the Mississippi Supreme Court is binding and we clearly believe it is,” McDuff said during the hearing.

Halford ultimately agreed with the arguments of Mississippi Solicitor General Scott Stewart, who argued on behalf of Lynn Fitch. He told Halford that the 1998 state Supreme Court ruling was no longer binding law because of the recent landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court overturning the decision and the Casey v. Planned Parenthood decision that enshrined in the U.S. Constitution the right to an abortion.

“They depend on Roe and Casey. There is no Roe and Casey anymore. And there is no Fordice,” Stewart said, referring to the 1998 state Supreme Court ruling titled Pro-Choice Mississippi v. Kirk Fordice.

READ MORE: Supreme Court could assure abortion ban in Mississippi, or people could vote

Stewart had also argued the case before the U.S. Supreme Court, Dobbs vs Jackson Women’s Health Organization, that resulted in the reversal of Roe and Casey.

What happens next depends on whether Halford’s ruling is appealed to the state Supreme Court.

As the issue is litigated, though, the clock is ticking on abortion rights in Mississippi. A trigger law is slated to take effect on Thursday banning all abortions in the state except in cases where it is determined the life of the mother is at risk or in cases where there is rape reported to law enforcement.

Another Mississippi law that would take effect based on the U.S. Supreme Court ruling would ban all abortion after six weeks except in cases of medical emergencies.

About 50 spectators heard the Tuesday morning arguments, and a small group protected outside of the Hinds County Chancery Court building.

Stewart did not try to argue that the 1998 ruling did not say abortion was a right under the state Constitution. Instead, he argued that the majority in 1998 ruled that abortion was a right under the state Constitution to be in alignment with the federal Supreme Court in the Roe v. Wade decision.

But McDuff said nowhere in the ruling was any reference made to the state Supreme Court decision being contingent on the Roe v. Wade decision. He said in other rulings, the state Supreme Court had ruled that the rights granted in the Mississippi Constitution did not “inflate or deflate like a balloon” based on the rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court. But on Tuesday, Halford disagreed with McDuff.

McDuff pointed out to the court that abortion had been legal for a vast majority of Mississippi’s statehood and that the judge should block the enactment of the laws banning abortion to give the Mississippi Supreme Court time to rule on the issue.

Stewart argued that it would not be a hardship to allow the laws to go into effect. He said programs had been put in place, such as pregnancy counseling programs, to help mothers who might otherwise had wanted to have an abortion.

Halford heard the case because all four Hinds County chancery judges recused themselves.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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