Judge Payne to retire from Court of Appeals

June 22, 2001

Court of Appeals Judge Mary Libby Payne, the only woman to serve on the 10-member court, is retiring July 31.

Payne said she plans to spend time with her husband, capture her family history on paper for her children and devote more time to public speaking engagements.

"Number one, I'm retiring because I want to be with my husband," Payne said. "I want to spend time with the man of my dreams, the man I've been married to for 45 years," Payne said of husband Bobby Payne. "He's been very supportive of my career."

"Number two, I want to write down the spiritual heritage of my grandchildren," said Payne, 69, of Pearl.

"Last year I heard an old African American proverb that really impressed me. It is, 'When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground,' " Payne said.

"My daddy was a consummate storyteller. He regaled us with stories every Sunday at the dinner table and at night. But television came along early in my marriage. My children didn't get to hear me tell my family stories. They need to know. They need to know who they are."

The Court of Appeals is soliciting letters about her work to include in a book of memories to be presented to Payne. Letters may be sent to Assistant Court Administrator Judy Lacy, P.O. Box 22847, Jackson, MS 39225.

Payne said she was inspired by the unpublished writings of her maternal grandfather, Joseph Anderson Cook, who was the first president of the University of Southern Mississippi. "Pappy" served in the Legislature from 1932 to 1940, and talked his son-in-law, Payne's father, Reece O. Bickerstaff of Gulfport, into running.

"In 1994, when I was running for office, I really became inspired by how my grandfather had handled adversity and how God had honored his faith back in 1893. My grandfather, who died when I was 7, blessed me. I know that my children and grandchildren need to know the same things," Payne said.

"I have got to let people know how great God is by showing how gracious He has been in the lives of my family members. Whether anybody ever reads it or not, it will be there," Payne said.

"Through the years, God has given us beautiful, unambiguous assurances of what we need to be doing," Payne said. "My prayer has always been to be an asset and not a liability to God's kingdom."

"This sounds spooky to people who don't know the Lord in an intimate relationship. I know that God does have a plan and a purpose and a place for every life."

Payne has served all three branches of state government. She was a legislative draftsman, executive director of the Mississippi Judiciary Commission and assistant state attorney general. Prior to her election to the Court of Appeals, Payne was a professor of law and founding dean of the Mississippi College School of Law.

Payne, who went to Mississippi University of Women to study ballet, said her calling to the practice of law was God's will.

"It was in July 1951 at Johnson Springs in Ridgecrest Baptist Assemly, in the prayer garden that I really felt God's call to the ministry of jurisprudence," Payne said. "I'm not sure how the Holy Spirit speaks to everybody. But in my heart I knew that day that this was what was God's will for my life."

She transferred to the University of Mississippi and graduated from law school there. Payne, who is on the national board of the Christian Legal Society, said her judicial decisions are based on law, not religion.

"I think our decisions are based on the admissible evidence in the record and the code and case law. That is what being a judge is. But I believe that to the extent that I allow God to be in control of my life, it may have an impact. I have a quiet time with the Lord at the beginning of each day so that I can have wisdom, but my decisions are not based on religion. They are based on evidence and law," Payne said.

Payne said her most significant writings at the Court of Appeals may be in her dissenting opinions. She noted with satisfaction that some of her positions, opposed by the majority at the Court of Appeals, were later adopted as the majority view on appeal to the Supreme Court.

Payne said her most significant contribution to the Court of Appeals may be one of efficiency rather than landmark decisions. The Court of Appeals, created in 1994 to relieve a backlog of appeals, hears cases of settled law. Precedent-setting cases of first impression go to the Supreme Court.

"We are primarily an errors correction court," Payne said. "Our cases are cases that involve the lives of those litigants and how the court interprets the present law."

"We have 600 cases a year. Our purpose is to get good, reliable decisions to litigants in a most efficient manner," Payne said.

Chief Judge Roger McMillin of the Court of Appeals said, "Judge Payne was one of the original members of this Court and has, throughout the life of this Court, performed her duties with diligence and distinction. She will be missed as an active member of the Court, but, as she continues her service to the state in other ways, she will continue to bring honor to the institution she has served faithfully and well."

Payne said she and her husband have prayed and sought spiritual direction about retirement. Bobby Payne retired in 1995 as director of central records for the Mississippi Employment Security Commission.

When the Court of Appeals was created, Payne ran for a short term that ended in January 1999. Terms of the first judges varied so that not all expired at the same time.

She made the decision to seek re-election and was unopposed. There are five and a half years left on the eight-year term.

"I knew that God wanted me to keep going toward the goal to which I had been called. That didn't mean I was chained to the desk until 2006," Payne said.

Gov. Ronnie Musgrove will appoint someone to fill the vacancy. An election will be held in November 2002 to fill the remainder of the term.

Payne, the only woman on the court, said she hopes Musgrove selects another woman to fill the vacancy. "There are many qualified women lawyers living in our district," Payne said.

On the significance of her service as a woman judge, Payne said, "In my long life, it may well be that whatever contribution I made would be primarily that I would present what being a woman is - a person of value with something to contribute that is worth listening to."

Payne said she is proud of having helped create a law school environment where women serve in positions of leadership on the faculty and student body at Mississippi College.

Payne, who was one of only three women in law school at the time she attended the University of Mississippi, said, "When I was in law school women were prohibited from being invited into legal fraternities."

"Mississippi College Law School has continued to bring in well qualified women to serve on the faculty and staff. Somehow, I believe that my launching the law school in a 'female appreciative' format at least contributed to the advancement of women lawyers," Payne said.

Payne also helped initiate the Task Force on Gender Fairness in 1998. The task force's goals are to identify whether the "design, operation, laws, rules, practices and conduct of the judicial system result in inequality between men and women," to assess real or perceived effects of gender bias in the judicial system and to educate the bench, bar and public about gender fairness. The task force, appointed by former Supreme Court Chief Justice Lenore Prather and extended by Chief Justice Edwin L. Pittman, has conducted surveys of the state's lawyers, judges and court staff. The task force is expected to make a report to the Legislature in December.

Former Lt. Gov. Evelyn Gandy of Hattiesburg said, "Judge Payne has a distinguished record of service on the Court of Appeals and throughout the years to the judicial system of Mississippi as a practicing attorney and the founding dean of the Mississippi College School of Law. Judge Payne has opened doors for women in the legal profession and has been an outstanding mentor for both men and women in the profession.

Payne was the recipient last year of the Susie Blue Buchanan Award given by the Women in the Profession Committee of the Mississippi Bar for professional excellence and advancement of other women in the profession.

In 1989, she was named "Woman of the Year" by the Mississippi Association for Women in Higher Education. She has been twice honored by Mississippi University for Women. She was recipient of the MUW Alumnae Achievement Award in 1987, and the MUW Medallion of Excellence in 1990. In 1988, she received life membership in the prestigious Fellows of the American Bar Foundation. Payne is a pacesetter for Southern Women in Public Service.

Payne said she won't return to private law practice after she retires from the bench. Payne said she will turn her professional energies to public speaking - something that already takes part of her time.

"If I were going to continue doing legal work, I would keep this wonderful job," Payne said. "My mother always said it's best to close down a party while everyone is wanting to continue it rather than to wait until everyone wishes that you would go."

For more information, contact Beverly Pettigrew Kraft, court public information officer, at 601-354-7452.