Chief Judge Donna Barnes sworn in as first woman to lead Court of Appeals

February 1, 2019

Chief Judge Donna Barnes of Tupelo on Feb. 1 was sworn in as the first woman judge to lead the Mississippi Court of Appeals.

Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael K. Randolph signed the order appointing Judge Barnes as Court of Appeals Chief Judge before a large crowd in the En Banc courtroom in Jackson before he administered the oath of office.

Chief Judge Donna Barnes sworn in

The oath ends, “so help me God.” Chief Justice Randolph said, “You will find that God is referenced in every Constitution in every state in the United States of America.” The Mississippi Constitution asks for God’s blessings. Randolph told Chief Judge Barnes, “I ask that He invoke His blessing on the work that you are about to do. Congratulations.”

“This really is an historic occasion,” said Joy Lambert Phillips of Gulfport, who served as the first woman president of the Mississippi Bar in 2005. “She’s a trailblazer in her own right, but I think she will quickly tell you that she stood on the shoulders of all those women who came before her, women who blazed a trail when there was not even a narrow path to follow.”

Chief Judge Barnes recognized in the audience former Judge Mary Libby Payne, the first woman and one of the original judges of the Court of Appeals. Others who inspired her included Supreme Court Chief Justice Lenore Prather, the first woman to serve on the state’s highest court and the only woman Chief Justice, and the late Lt. Governor Evelyn Gandy.

“I owe each of these ladies a debt I can never repay, for doing what was not easy,” Chief Judge Barnes said. “My pledge to all the women in the profession who prepared my way, is that I will, in the way that I ful-fill my duties as Chief Judge, try to make it easier for the women who come after.”

She expressed thanks not only to women of the state’s highest offices, but to women such as Jean Magee, the first female lawyer hired at the law firm of Mitchell, McNutt and Sams in Tupelo. Magee’s example of hard work helped open the way for Barnes to become the firm’s second woman lawyer. Exemplary trial judges including Denise Owens, Patricia Wise, Jacqueline Mask and Sharion Aycock influenced voters to consider electing other women judges.

Chief Judge Barnes said that Phillips’ example as Mississippi Bar President in 2005 likely influenced members of the Bar who recently elected a fifth woman, Jennifer Ingram Johnson of Hattiesburg, as President-Elect of the Mississippi Bar.

Phillips said, “Just as she was influenced by these trail blazing women, Chief Judge Barnes also now is influencing and inspiring younger attorneys, so congratulations to the first woman to serve as Chief Judge of the Mississippi Court of Appeals. But here’s to having fewer firsts and more seconds and thirds.”

Former Gov. Haley Barbour, who appointed Judge Barnes to the Court of Appeals in August 2004, said she exemplified what he was looking for in a judicial appointee. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree summa cum laude and a law degree magna cum laude from the University of Mississippi. With 18 years of law practice, “Donna’s reputation in the bar was sterling. Her stature in the community was the best.” She was “the kind of person that you would want to have responsibility. I am very proud to have appointed her, and so should we always want this quality when we appoint judges because of the critical role that you all play in making our country the country that it is, the greatest country in the history of the world.”

U. S. Senator Roger Wicker of Tupelo recalled speaking at Judge Barnes’ first investiture in December 2004 in Tupelo. “Clearly Lee County exported IQ points to the State Capital that day and we are all better off for it. Her admiring colleagues attest, calling her brilliant, a wonderful person, and stating that she exemplifies leadership and judicial temperament.”

Wicker noted that Judge Barnes, who grew up in Natchez, was a Girl Scout, choir member and musician. She played baritone in high school and in the Ole Miss marching band.

After Phillips pointed out that the new Chief Judge is an enthusiastic Elvis Presley fan, Wicker ran with it. “What truly intrigues me this afternoon are the possibilities that loom for Chief Judge Barnes now that I know what an Elvis fan she really is.”

He mused, “Maybe you and Elvis could implement a few changes in terminology: For example, when an attorney is about to get an unfavorable decision, you could start the notice off with this warning: ‘Heartbreak Hotel.’...When a case is being remanded back down to these trial judges, how about simply ‘Return to Sender.’ A restraining order could begin: ‘Don’t Be Cruel.’ A unanimous decision might start out with ‘Such an Easy Question,’ or better yet to the losing side, ‘Steamroller Blues.’ A criminal defendant’s counsel should be allowed to point the finger at ‘Suspicious Minds,’ but the truly repentant accused might simply plead, ‘I Did it My Way.’ Of course the decision might still end up with ‘Jailhouse Rock.’”

Continuing with the musical theme, Wicker said, “I will mention just one more little song made popular during our formative years by Helen Reddy: ‘I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar.’ In that vein we celebrate a nice milestone in Mississippi history today, our first female chief judge. So Judge Donna Barnes from Tupelo, grab that gavel and proudly break another glass ceiling. I’m proud of you.”

Watch the archived video of Chief Judge Barnes' investiture at this link: