In the public debate over Initiative 42, one of the anti-42ers’ favorite talking points is the old “One Judge in Jackson” line. It’s colorful. It’s scary. It casts a dark shadow for lots of Mississippians who have real jobs to work and don’t have time to fact check every line coming out of Jackson’s anti-funding Machine. It goes like this: Initiative 42 will give us one judiciary official with absolute power over the schools! Or maybe 42 will unleash a flaming liberal hellbent on rewriting the Mississippi constitution! Or no wait, it was 42 will dissolve the legislative branch completely and give judges lifetime tenure! (I think that’s the latest one.) It really depends on which version of the “One Judge” urban legend you hear, and who’s telling it at the time. Fact is, these storytellers don’t have history on their side, so they have to dream up elaborate possible futures.
But what’s the truth? What are the facts behind the spooky judge rumored to haunt Hinds County funding decisions? Join me for a brief tour through the myths surrounding the “one judge in Jackson.”
MYTH #1: THE SECRET PURPOSE OF INITIATIVE 42 IS TO TRANSFER POWER
Lobbyists within Team Status Quo have actually said 42 is not really about schools; it’s about stealing power from the Legislature.
WHY IT’S FALSE:
To understand why people in their right minds would add “injunctive relief” as a constitutional provision for the schools, first it’s important to understand where we are now. What does the Mississippi constitution actually say about the government’s education obligations? And what does that mean for school funding at the present time?
As it is written, the Mississippi constitution only provides for free education. That’s it. There’s nothing there guaranteeing its children adequate funding. This is a restriction considered weak by other states’ constitutional standards, and these are states we’re expected to compete with. Georgia and Florida already mandate “adequate” provisions for education. Arkansas and Kentucky mandate “efficient” schools. Florida even goes a step further to demand “high quality” in their state constitution. But not us. Our schools are just free. And we’re arguing over whether they should be adequate.
In addition, because of that weak language, the Mississippi constitution provides no judicial remedy when the Legislature fails to fund education to the “adequate” amount prescribed by law. There are simply no checks and balances on the Legislature from the other branches. READ THIS CAREFULLY: Under Mississippi’s current constitution, no level of school funding can be declared unconstitutional- no matter how low- as long as the school is free to attend. The Legislature could simply shift the funding burden from Jackson to local municipalities- as they have continued to do– and there is currently nothing on the books to stop them. Or to make them answer publicly for it.
For a perfect example of this constitutional limitation, look no further than former Governor Musgrove’s lawsuit against the Legislature on behalf of underfunded schools. Musgrove claimed state law mandated adequate funding, but lost the case. Though Hinds County Judge William Singletary specifically stated he was sympathetic to the plaintiff’s case, the law didn’t have teeth enough to hold the Legislature accountable.
The purpose of Initiative 42 is to secure adequate funding for Mississippi’s schools. In order to do that, there must be consequences when the Legislature fails.
MYTH #2: MISSISSIPPI DOESN’T NEED A JUDGE IN ORDER TO ACHIEVE ADEQUATE FUNDING
Opponents of Initiative 42 are quick to dismiss the necessity of going to the courts for a straightforward answer. They’d rather not hear it uttered out loud that the legislature actually broke the law. Or have it put down on public record so everyone can see. Instead, they encourage voters to take it upon themselves to punish legislators who break funding laws by voting them out secretly from the ballot box. The problem is this avoids setting any historical precedents we can learn from, and instead allows future generations to assume all our politicians always did the right thing.
But still some folks believe adequate funding is possible without a judge’s involvement.
WHY IT’S FALSE:
In short, this myth is wildly naive about how government actually works.
Without a court remedy, of course the ideal solution to our funding crisis would be to send brand new legislators to a morally upstanding state capital, completely cut off from the money and influence of lobbyists. There, tucked away from corruption, they would keep only our best interests at heart as they carefully considered what’s best for our kids. It’s a wonderful dream society. However, for the time being, we live in Mississippi. A recent study found our state is the most corrupt state in America. As idealistic on school funding as I am, I don’t think I would ask anyone to trust even ME to go fix the school funding crisis from inside the Capital City Machine.
But no, they’d like to continue breaking funding law as usual with us, the voters, as the sole party responsible for confronting them about it. Ok, for the sake of argument, let’s say we were all adequately informed on the intricacies of Mississippi funding law. Let’s say we all started casting our votes solely based on whether lawmakers broke said laws. Then, let’s say we committed ourselves- the entire state- to do this consistently for years and years until we rid ourselves of these bad apples. Ok. Say we do all that. We STILL wouldn’t be able to control the culture in Jackson. We’d be installing a revolving door for the lobbyists’ consultations.
No, new legislators haven’t fixed this problem the first two decades we’ve faced it, and they won’t in the next two, either. We need a new way to cut through the political bull, stop accepting lip service from law breakers, and firmly explain to our government officials what their first priority will be. Initiative 42 does that.
Making education funding our top priority statewide will require some sort of oversight for the Legislature. That’s just the reality of politics.
MYTH #3: INITIATIVE 42 CREATES NEW JUDICIARY POWERS
The Initiative language says “with appropriate injunctive relief.” You know- as in a judge! And it would ADD that sentence to the constitution, where no injunctive relief currently exists! It must be that this will consolidate some sort of power the schools have in all the 82 counties, into one person in Hinds County!
WHY IT’S FALSE:
Bobby Harrison explained this in The Daily Journal in April way better than I could. Basically, the reason we’re talking about “one judge in Jackson” in the first place is because of Mississippi Code § 11-45-1. The state already mandates lawsuits against the state be heard by a Hinds County judge. The idea Initiative 42 seeks to make this happen is just plain wrong, because it has nothing to do with Initiative 42.
For the last 18 years, the legislature has been interpreting their own law as they wish. Initiative 42 includes “injunctive relief” so that Mississippi citizens have someone from the judicial branch interpret the law for once- you know- the branch that’s actually supposed to do that. Don’t fear the dreamed up scenarios the Machine wants you to imagine. Look to common sense. Look to recent history. Truth is, “one judge in Hinds County” has heard cases against the government for years.
Initiative 42 creates no new judiciary powers.
MYTH #4: INITIATIVE 42 GIVES ONE JUDGE POWER OVER ALL THE SCHOOLS
There would be one judge hearing the case. That’s a fact! And it would be a case about statewide law, so it might affect all the schools! Plus the ballot doesn’t say what “adequate” means, so that decision would be left up to whoever the judge is.
WHY IT’S FALSE:
First things first: Initiative 42 would not give a judge power over curriculum decisions, or power to underfund schools, or power to mandate tests. Sure, you should worry about those things, but the scary power player you’re thinking of there is the Legislature. The judge in this case simply interprets whether the state has provided an efficient and adequate education.
It’s true: the ballot doesn’t contain a specific definition of “adequate.” Fact is, Initiative 42 doesn’t need one because we already have a working definition of adequate in current state law- the MAEP formula. It would be presumptuous and counterproductive to enshrine MAEP forever in the state constitution. Under the changes brought on by Initiative 42, adequacy will be required, but the judge will simply hold the Legislature to their own definition, which they will still have the power to redefine as needed. The writers of 42 didn’t include MAEP because they didn’t want to handcuff the Legislature to one formula forever.
What’s more, if you’re one of the many Mississippians who wish the Legislature would fix the formula, great! 42 will give them the push they need to reevaluate it. The consequence of appearing before a judge will force them to be efficient with our money. Think of the Legislature like you would a teenager with a dirty car. You can hem and haw and nag them to wash it, but it just never seems to get washed until it’s time for a date Saturday night. Then it’s sparkling clean. The Legislature will never fix the MAEP formula until they’re held accountable for actually using it.
Initiative 42 gives the judicial branch the ability to enforce existing law. That’s it.
MYTH #5: MISSISSIPPI WILL BE OVERRUN BY A LIBERAL AGENDA
This would change the way things are now. Change is probably because of liberals. Liberals want other liberalistic things to happen, so they would probably cast one of their voodoo liberal spells over the bench and somehow use this funding law as a way to push a liberal agenda.
WHY IT’S FALSE:
Look to recent history to debunk this one. It was “one judge in Hinds County” who ruled against Musgrove and school funding this July. Turns out the one judge tends to act conservatively.
Plus, should a case be brought against the Legislature over school funding after Initiative 42 is passed, sure it’ll go the judge in Hinds County first. But it almost certainly would be appealed. After an appeal, it’ll be nine justices the case goes to next- a conservative Supreme Court with a conservative track record of rulings in the past, who will interpret Mississippi law conservatively again. Initiative 42 will not magically turn the judicial system into a flaming torch for liberalism. The legal critics who say 42 is too vague have, in a sense, shown you why this myth is hyperbolic: there are no legal handcuffs anywhere in it. It provides for enforcement of existing law, but nothing more. To expect “shenanigans” from a judicial system as conservative as ours is quite frankly, silly. Mississippi, we’re being trolled by a political machine that wants no checks and balances.
Mississippi is conservative and will continue to be conservative with or without Initiative 42.
Before you buy into the “one judge in Jackson” rhetoric, take the time to consider the facts- all the facts. Oh sure, imagine along with the horror movie fantasies of some sort of Mississippi gone wild, but after that, come back to reality. Come back to the Mississippi you actually live in.
And next time you think about all the lawmakers in Jackson declaring themselves fit to tell YOU whether they’re criminals or not, remember:
There are hundreds of politicians breaking the law, right now.
But without Initiative 42, there is no judge in Jackson.