JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A federal judge says he’s aware of the “time-sensitive nature” of an election-year lawsuit that says Mississippi has a racially discriminatory method of choosing statewide officials, including governor.

U.S. District Judge Daniel P. Jordan III has set mid- and late July deadlines for state attorneys to respond to the suit filed May 30 by four African American plaintiffs. The suit seeks to end what they say is a system aimed at thwarting the election of Black candidates.

Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith, a candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor, addresses editors and publishers at the annual Mississippi Press Association Candidates Forum in Biloxi, Miss., Friday, June 21, 2019. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

A Mississippi constitutional provision written in 1890 says candidates must win a majority of the popular vote and a majority of the 122 Mississippi House districts. If nobody wins both majorities, the election is decided by the House. It was written at a time that White politicians across the South were enacting Jim Crow laws to erase Black political power that had been gained during Reconstruction. No other state in the U.S. uses such a method.

Mississippi has August primaries and a November election for governor and other offices, and the lawsuit seeks to block the two-pronged election method from being used this year.

State attorneys originally had a June 20 deadline to respond to the lawsuit but sought more time because they said the suit deals with “complex and important issues.”

Jordan granted an extension, setting deadlines of July 15 for the state to respond to plaintiffs’ general arguments and July 20 for the state to respond to plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction that would block the multi-pronged election process from being used this year.

“The Court understands the time-sensitive nature of the case and anticipates that it too will need time to consider the merits once fully briefed,” Jordan wrote June 20.

Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, the first African American to hold that job, is chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, whose affiliated foundation is providing financial and legal support for the lawsuit.

Fourth-term Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood is running for governor this year, and if he were to win the Democratic primary in August, his campaign could be affected by the outcome of the lawsuit.

A spokeswoman for the office, Margaret Ann Morgan, said Thursday that she would check on why Hood or assistant attorneys general are not representing the state, as they normally would in lawsuits. Morgan said in a statement Friday: “Pursuant to the rules on attorney/client privilege, our office will refrain from commenting.” She did not answer the question about whether the attorney general’s office is not handling the case because of Hood’s candidacy.


Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: