Judge James L. Roberts Jr. lauded for public service

January 21, 2019

Judge James L. Roberts Jr. of Pontotoc was honored for his career of more than 40 years of public service on Jan. 18 as he presented his portrait to the Mississippi Supreme Court.

Judge James L. Roberts Jr. poses with portrait

Before his wife Rose and artist Robbie Boyd unveiled the painting, his protégés and colleagues painted a word picture of a judicial scholar, mentor, teacher and good humored story teller.

“A real life Atticus Finch” is how former law clerk Chad Russell, a Pontotoc native, described him. “A picture speaks a thousand words, or so the saying goes. Yet a thousand words would just be the forward to the wonderful novel that is Judge Roberts,” Russell said. “Judge Roberts’ career exemplifies his willingness to step forward and offer his talents to the service of his fellow man. I believe he viewed his profession as his highest calling…. Judge Roberts has led, he has served, and he has made a difference. And he has not stopped.”

Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. recalled Roberts’ six and one-half years of service on the Supreme Court as marked by hard work, scholarly decisions and good humor. Among his most significant contributions were his work in setting in motion the Court of Appeals after the Legislature authorized its creation as an intermediate appellate court. Roberts as a Supreme Court Justice served on the Rules Committee that adopted operating rules for the Court of Appeals before it began hearing cases in January 1995. He also played a leading role in finding a place to house the Court of Appeals.

“From the Biblical Book of Micah, he acted justly and walked humbly before the Lord. He was a Christian example for all of us,” Chief Justice Waller said.

Chief Justice Waller noted that Rose Roberts contributed to preserving the history of the court. “Whatever photographs we got from an archival standpoint during that time were captured with her expert eye and her great camera. We appreciate that.”

Judge James L. Roberts Jr. portrait speaker

Russell recalled meeting Roberts at the University of Mississippi School of Law when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas spoke there 24 years ago. Russell was president of the Law School Student Body. Rose Roberts took Russell and Judge Roberts’ picture as they talked. “Judge Roberts in his nice, deep voice said, ‘Chad, now I know you don’t believe me, but 24 years ago I was president of the Law School Student Body, trim and nice looking like you are, with a full head of hair. If you are not careful, you will wind up looking like I do now.’”

A few days later, Rose Roberts’ picture arrived in the mail, captioned with Judge Roberts’ exact words. Russell held up the framed photo, which has hung in every office he’s had since then. He keeps it “to be reminded every day that someone in his position could take the time to do that….I saw him do that countless times for others….Judge Roberts has lived a very impactful life that has benefitted countless folks along the way.”

Russell served as Roberts’ law clerk from August 1996 through May 1998. Judge Roberts taught law, the appellate process, legal writing and ethics. He taught by example how to treat people – those whose matters came before the court, and those whom he encountered.

“Judge Roberts made sure we understood that the cold record before us represented real people, people who were counting, depending on justice.”

“I watched a man treat the lady that made the coffee and cleaned the offices with the same dignity and respect as he did the Chief Justice.”

“Judge Roberts observes people. He finds humor in most situations, some more than others. He never takes himself too seriously.”

Judge Roberts thanked Russell for his kind words. “I also want to get a copy of this for my obituary. I don’t believe anybody can improve on it.”

Judge Roberts thanked family and friends who traveled from north Mississippi for the ceremony, six of his former law clerks, and former colleagues in attendance including Chief Justice Waller, former Chief Justice Jim Smith, former Chief Justice Edwin Lloyd Pittman, former Presiding Justice Fred L. Banks Jr. and former Presiding Justice Chuck McRae.

He fondly recalled his service at the Supreme Court from September 1992 to March 1999. “I have regretted leaving the court every day since I left,” he said. But it enabled him to do other things, including teaching for six years at the University of Southern Mississippi, working as a mediator and serving as a circuit judge. “If I could live life over again, I might want to be a teacher.”

As a former chancellor and Supreme Court justice and now a circuit judge, he noted that he has served on three of the four courts created by the Mississippi Constitution. “Occasionally I have served on an acting basis in the Justice Court and I’ve had all of the experience there that I want, no offense to them.”

He enjoys being a circuit judge, having been appointed to the First Circuit bench in December 2007. “I intended to serve maybe about a year as Circuit Judge and then disappear from that,” Judge Roberts said. He’s in his twelfth year. “I have continued to serve because I think I owe a debt for the state of Mississippi sending me to the Judicial College and to other schools.” He said he thinks that if he is able to make a contribution, he should.

As a youth, he knew other distinguished members of the Supreme Court. He views the court through the lens of history. Ever the historian, he treated the crowd to personal anecdotes about Justice William Henry Inzer of Pontotoc and Justice Henry Lee Rogers of Louisville.

Justice Inzer served from 1966 to his death in 1978. “I grew up delivering his paper sacking his groceries. I thought he liked me a lot until I realized he actually voted for my opponent every time, but that’s OK.” He recalled visiting Justice Inzer at his office at the New Capitol while a student at Millsaps College. Inzer, wearing a green eyeshade and underling case materials in red pencil, greeted him and told him to leave because he was busy. He recalled visiting Justice Inzer’s grave in Calhoun City. A modest stone marks the final resting place of a man who distinguished himself in military and judicial service.

Justice Rogers served on the Supreme Court 1961-1976. Justice Rogers’ sister taught Roberts in high school and Sunday School “and was the purveyor of some of the greatest stories in the world. I admire people who can tell great stories. It is a wonderful attribute to have, and if you can’t, it’s all right to listen.”

Judge Roberts has favored friends and colleagues with lengthy historical missives, and thinks of others that he should put on paper. He told other judges in attendance to do the same. “Save your notes, make notes of what you do and sometime write about it when you can. It will mean a lot to your family and those who follow in your footsteps.”

“I’m standing on the back porch looking at twilight of my career, and sooner or later that’s going to get here.”

Video of the ceremony is archived at this link: