The Government of Mississippi: How it Functions

When Mississippi became a United States territory in 1798, its first government was made up of a territorial governor, a secretary to the governor, and three judges. Washington, Mississippi, served as the territorial capital. That is where the first Mississippi Constitution was drafted and sent to the United States Congress for the territory’s admittance in the Union as a state. On December 10, 1817, Mississippi became the twentieth state, and since then, Mississippi’s citizens and officials shaped state government into what it is today.

The Mississippi Constitution that is currently in use was adopted on November 1, 1890. This document, with its subsequent amendments, sets the framework for the state government and outlines the duties and responsibilities of its officials. Just like on the federal level, Mississippi has three branches of government: the executive branch, the legislative branch, and the judicial branch. The three branches work together and have checks and balances against each other so that no branch becomes too strong.

Executive branch

The executive branch is the chief law enforcement branch of state government. It is made up of the offices of governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, state auditor, state treasurer, commissioner of agriculture and commerce, commissioner of insurance, three public service commissioners, and three transportation commissioners. These offices are responsible for specific functions of state government. The officeholders are elected to four-year terms and can be re-elected with the exception of the governor and lieutenant governor who are limited to two consecutive terms.

As chief executive officer of the state, the governor is charged with presenting a balanced budget to the Mississippi Legislature for its consideration. The governor either signs into law or vetoes all bills passed by the state legislature. Additionally, the governor serves as the commander-in-chief of Mississippi’s militia. The governor appoints officials to various government positions as the law requires.

The lieutenant governor presides over the state Senate and votes in the event of a tie. The lieutenant governor also serves as a member of the Senate Rules and Joint Legislative Budget committees, appoints standing committees of the Senate, and refers all bills to committees for consideration. If the office of the governor becomes vacant, by the governor’s death, absence from the state, or by long illness, the lieutenant governor will have the powers to discharge the duties of the office.

The secretary of state is responsible for making sure that certain businesses in the state operate under the law. The secretary of state also manages state-owned lands such as 16th Section School Trust Lands and Tidelands. This office is also responsible for ensuring fair, accurate elections throughout the state of Mississippi, as well as for publishing documents dealing with the acts of the state legislature among other official documents, including the Mississippi Official and Statistical Register, commonly called the Blue Book.

The attorney general is the chief legal officer of the state. This position acts as the official lawyer for Mississippi, its public officials, and government agencies. The attorney general is the only official in the state who can bring or defend a lawsuit on behalf of the state. The attorney general’s office employs a staff of attorneys and investigators who help law enforcement investigate and prosecute criminal activity that happens in the state.

The state auditor maintains the state’s accounting system; audits all state agencies, county governments, county school districts, community colleges and universities; and conducts investigation into abuse of public funds and violation of law.

The duties of the state treasurer parallel those of chief financial officer in the business world. The treasurer maintains various financial records for the state, including receipts, deposits, and disbursement of treasury funds. This position provides oversight of the process of issuing bonds.

The agriculture and commerce commissioner promotes and regulates the business of aquaculture and agriculture in the state, including food and product labeling inspections.

The insurance commissioner executes all laws relative to all insurance companies, corporations, and their agents and adjustors operating in the state. The state’s standard fire code is administered by the commissioner, as well as the licensing of manufacturers and dealers of mobile homes and regulating their practices.

The three public service commissioners supervise and regulate for-hire transportation, communication, electric, gas, water and sewer utilities.

The three transportation commissioners control and supervise all matters relating to airport development, highway construction and maintenance, weight enforcement, public transit, and rail planning.

Legislative branch

The legislative branch is responsible for writing laws for the state of Mississippi. The state legislature is divided into two houses, the Senate and the House of Representatives. The state is divided into 52 senate districts and 122 representative districts. Senators and representatives are voted into office by constituents in those districts for four-year terms. Each year in January the Mississippi Legislature begins its session where members bring proposed laws, called “bills,” to the floor of either the House of Representatives or the Senate for debate and eventually a vote. Often during this process changes or “amendments” are made to the bill, which are incorporated before a final vote takes place.

If a bill is first presented on the floor of the House of Representatives, once that bill has been passed by the members of the House, it must then go to the Senate for debate and vote. The same principle operates if a bill is first introduced in the Senate. The House of Representatives is presented the final version of the bill for a vote. The second chamber has the opportunity to make changes to the bill. Those changes are then voted on by the original chamber.

Once a bill passes both chambers of the Mississippi Legislature it is sent to the governor for signature or veto. The governor has five days to either approve a bill by signing it into law, or to return it to the House of Representatives or the Senate with objections. If the governor does not take either action, the bill automatically becomes a law without the governor’s signature. The legislature can override a governor’s veto with two-thirds vote of both houses in favor of the bill’s passage.

Judicial branch

The judicial branch — the state’s court system — is responsible for making sure Mississippi laws are not in conflict with the state Constitution. The courts also settle disputes and punish those who break Mississippi’s laws. The highest court in the state is the Mississippi Supreme Court, and its nine justices are voted into office by the citizens to serve eight-year terms, which are staggered to provide continuity. Like the United States Supreme Court, the Mississippi Supreme Court hears appeals from lower courts. The Mississippi Supreme Court also hears cases about Mississippi laws and makes determinations as to whether those laws violate the Mississippi Constitution.

In 1994, Mississippi established the Mississippi Court of Appeals. There are ten judges who sit on the court of appeals, elected by the state’s voters to serve eight-year terms, which are staggered to provide continuity. They hear appeal cases from lower courts that are assigned to it by the Mississippi Supreme Court.

Mississippi has two other courts that operate on a statewide level — chancery and circuit courts. Mississippi has twenty chancery court districts that hear cases involving family matters, such as divorce and child custody, the carrying out of wills, and other issues.

Judges who sit in Mississippi’s twenty-two circuit court districts hear cases that involve criminal matters and some that involve civil matters. Civil matters usually involve a person suing another person or an organization for some harm they might have received. Chancellors and circuit court judges are all elected to four-year terms. Ordinarily, circuit courts use juries and chancery courts do not.

There is one other aspect of state government that is vitally important to making state government work — the citizens of Mississippi. For more information about how Mississippians can become involved, visit the Secretary of State’s website.

Eric Clark, Mississippi’s secretary of state from 1996 to 2008, holds a doctorate in history from Mississippi State University.

Lesson Plan

  • Mississippi State Seal
    The State Seal has been in use since 1817, the year Mississippi became a state. Image courtesy Mississippi Secretary of State.
  • Mississippi Coat of Arms
    The Mississippi Coat of Arms has been in use since 2001. The design was made official by the 1894 Mississippi Legislature, but the original law was not brought forward in the 1906 revision of the Mississippi Code. The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled in May 2000 that Mississippi did not have an official Coat of Arms. The Mississippi Legislature re-adopted the Coat of Arms in 2001. Image courtesy Mississippi Secretary of State.
  • How a bill becomes law
    Illustration of how a bill becomes law. The Legislative branch is responsible for writing laws for the state. Image courtesy Mississippi Secretary of State.
  • Mississippi Supreme Court districts map
    The Mississippi Supreme Court, the state’s court of last resort, is composed of nine elected justices, three from each of the state’s three Supreme Court Districts. Transportation Commissioners and Public Service Commissioners are also elected from the three Supreme Court Districts. Map courtesy Mississippi Secretary of State.
  • Mississippi chancery courts map
    Twenty chancery courts have jurisdiction over matters involving equity, divorce, alimony, probate, guardianship, and sanity. Most chancery court cases are non-jury proceedings. Map courtesy Mississippi Secretary of State.
  • Mississippi circuit court map
    Twenty-two circuit courts have original jurisdiction over all civil and criminal matters not vested exclusively in another court. Most circuit court cases are heard by juries. Map courtesy Mississippi Secretary of State.