Fifth circuit rules airport takeover communications off limits to attorneys

By ANTHONY WARREN,

Legislators’ motives behind the passage of SB 2162, the Jackson airport takeover bill, likely will be remain unknown, following a recent ruling by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Recently, the court ruled that lawmakers did not have to comply with a lower court’s requirement to release third-party communications related to the airport takeover legislation.

Nor would lawmakers have to comply with a directive to submit “privilege logs” detailing their conversations with other government officials as it related to the bill.

The circuit remanded the case back to the U.S. District Court, with the mandate that the communications mandates be vacated and that count seven in the case be dismissed.

The ruling is a major victory for the state, which is trying to seize control of the Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport from the city of Jackson, to place under control of a regional board.

Meanwhile, the ruling is a blow for the city and the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority (JMAA), which has been fighting the takeover for more than two years.

A major component of the city’s case is that the takeover is racially motivated.

Jackson is a majority black city, and the JMAA board is made up exclusively of African Americans.

SB 2162, authored by a five white Republicans, would replace JMAA with a regional board, with members appointed by the state and by the surrounding counties.

Under the legislation, both Madison and Rankin counties would receive seats on the board. Both counties are majority white.

Attorneys for the airport subpoenaed lawmakers’ communications to determine whether or not race was, indeed, a factor. 

Lawmakers, though, refused to comply, saying any communications were “protected by legislative privilege.”

The district court ruled the bill’s authors waived legislative privilege on any documents shared with third-party individuals and required that those documents to be released.

However, the district magistrate did rule that communications shared only with government officials were still protected.

For that correspondence, Magistrate Keith Ball required lawmakers to compile “privilege logs,” detailing the information not being released.

The Fifth Circuit ruled that “the district court abused its discretion” in requiring lawmakers to release the information.

The circuit also dismissed count seven in the case, which argued that SB 2162 denies the city of Jackson, its citizens and the plaintiffs equal protection under the law.

Jackson and JMAA argued the state was taking away the right of its residents to control Jackson-Evers via their elected officials. Jackson-Evers is owned by the city and is managed by the JMAA board of directors.

The five-member panel is made up of members appointed by the mayor and approved by the city council.

Individually, JMAA board members were claiming that dissolving JMAA would mean they would lose their position on the board.

The court said board members’ claims don’t hold water, and ruled that JMAA members did not have standing to bring suit against the state because they “failed to demonstrate an injury to a legally protected interest.”

The city further argued that SB 2162 unfairly targeted Jackson, while leaving other municipal airport authorities in the state intact.

The Fifth Circuit disagreed. “Cities are creatures of states, and though their authority to do so is not unlimited, states may, under some circumstances, treat cities differently.”

Judge Jerry E. Smith issued the opinion for the three-member panel. Judge Patrick E. Higginbotham concurred.

SB 2162 was approved during the 2016 legislative session. The measure was expected to take effect that year. However, the measure has been temporarily blocked by the courts and by the Federal Aviation Administration.

A copy of the ruling can be found at northsidesun.com.

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