Judge Cory Wilson says judicial service is a way of “paying it forward”

May 24, 2019

Judge Cory Wilson at his investiture on May 20 in Jackson thanked the Governor for the opportunity to serve on the Mississippi Court of Appeals.

“What a privilege it is to play a part in sustaining those core American freedoms that are enshrined in the rule of law,” Judge Wilson said, reciting from the Declaration of Independence: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

At the start of the investiture, former Court of Appeals Judge Jim Herring introduced public officials. At Wilson’s request, he asked all military veterans to stand and be recognized. When he spoke later during the ceremony, Judge Wilson noted the sacrifices and service of veterans. “I can’t pay any of this back, but I can pay it forward,” he said.

Gov. Phil Bryant appointed Judge Wilson, 48, of Madison County, to a vacancy on the Court of Appeals after the Governor appointed then-Court of Appeals Chief Judge T. Kenneth Griffis to the Supreme Court. Judge Wilson was sworn in on Feb. 15. It is traditional to hold an investiture at a later date. Supreme Court Justice David M. Ishee, a long-time friend from the Gulf Coast, administered the ceremonial oath.

Judge Cory Wilson

Gov. Bryant at the investiture said he knew Wilson from his service as advisor and counsel to State Treasure Lynn Fitch and as chief of staff to Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, and thought his abilities were remarkable. He said Wilson had also served well as special assistant to Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld from 2005 to 2006. “I take pride each time I see a Mississippian who finds themselves in these positions of responsibility. I believe it helps us all,” Gov. Bryant said.

It was in Wilson’s service in the Legislature that the Governor said he saw Wilson emerge as a leader. Wilson served House District 73, representing part of Madison County, beginning in 2016. He resigned from the House of Representatives on Feb. 14 to accept the appointment to the Court of Appeals.

Former Hinds County Circuit Judge Robert Gibbs, who practiced law alongside Wilson, said he embodies the characteristics of a good judge: good character, respectful, patient, hard-working, a good listener who is inclusive of others’ ideas, and has the legal intelligence and knowledge of the complexities of the law.

Gibbs said that Wilson sought his advice as a former judge. “There we were at the Elite Restaurant eating a basket full of rolls, sharing ideas of being a judge. It didn’t matter that he was white and I was black. It didn’t matter that he was a Republican and I was a Democrat,” Gibbs said. “I have no doubt that from the discussion that I had with Judge Wilson that day that what Socrates said over 2,500 years ago is true: To hear courteously, to answer wisely, to consider soberly and decide impartially – that’s what you would do, Judge Wilson.”

Attorney Michael Dawkins, a longtime friend, said Wilson is driven to public service. “What makes me an enthusiastic supporter of each of Cory’s decisions to pursue public service is that he wants to use his extraordinary gifts of vision, writing and oratory to accomplish good in his home state, and now those gifts can be used to do justice through this court.”

Amanda Tollison, Wilson’s former law partner and president-elect of the Mississippi Bar, recalled his community service and working with him both in law practice and in public service. The Governor “could not have made a better choice,” she said.

Judge Wilson said, “Governor, this is pretty heady stuff for a boy from a blue collar shipyard town. I don’t really consider myself a very likely person to be standing here today. My family is not full of lawyers or politicians or politically connected folks.”

He graduated from Moss Point High School. His mother, Cathy Johnson of Gautier, was a public school teacher. His father, Ed Wilson of Moss Point, was an engineer who spent his career helping build ships for the U.S. Navy. They and his stepfather, Allen Johnson, “modeled for me those good old American values: duty, honor, country, work hard, follow the rules, show up, give back. And they poured everything they could into their kids so we would have better opportunities and a better chance to excel, so I’ll never forget it and I thank you all,” Judge Wilson said.

He thanked his wife Stephanie and son Webb. “You are so much better than I deserve, so much more than I could hope for. So you make me the proudest husband and the proudest father around.”

“I’m so very aware today, more than myself, of the number of people who have sacrificed and supported and encouraged over a lifetime, and this is really their day,” he said. “I’m standing on the shoulders of a lot of folks who got me here.”

He shared personal stories of his time at Yale Law School. When he got the letter of acceptance, he knew that he could not afford to attend. Student loans would not cover tuition, and as for his personal savings, he had worked at McDonalds in his home town of Moss Point, and as a runner for a law firm.

“My grandmother, Granny Rita, who is here today, basically gave me my inheritance early. That was a lot of money for her,” Judge Wilson said. “It was just enough money to make it possible for me to go, with bubble gum and Band-Aids holding it all together, so I could go that first year to Yale.” Applause broke out in the audience. As it subsided, Judge Wilson said to his grandmother, “I hope you feel like your investment turned out OK.”

Rita Pellerin of Pascagoula said after the ceremony, “We are so proud of him.”

Judge Wilson said he was the only Mississippian attending Yale for two of the three years. He compared Mississippi and Connecticut as “about like the Gulf of Mexico versus the surface of the moon, so it was a lonely place.” A Country music station in Hartford “didn’t even play really good Country music, but it was all I had, except for this: that first semester, every day literally all the way through December, I got a letter, a post card, a care package. People came to see me in Connecticut.” Classmates followed him to check the mail to see how long the streak would last. Mail came from family and friends from Moss Point and Ole Miss.

“Nobody else had that. I’ve always thought that’s part of who we are in Mississippi. I will also tell you there is no limit to what you can do when you know there are people behind you and rooting for you.” As for his Yale law degree, “I’ve never seen it as just mine. It belongs to them too.”

Judge Wilson recognized former legislative colleagues and said he is grateful for the “awesome privilege” of representing the people of Madison County in the House. In a nod to Wilson’s service in the Legislature, former House Page Jackson Mize led the Pledge of Allegiance.

Judge Wilson was emphatic about the different role of the judiciary. “It is not appropriate for us to legislate from the bench. We decide the cases before us, not the policy debates that are across the street at the Capitol. It sounds pretty basic but in today’s world, maybe it needs to be said: statutes mean what they say. It’s important for us to follow precedent, not invent it as we go along.” He said, “I think it’s incredibly important for courts to preserve the rule of law, ensure due process, equal and impartial justice for all. I also believe that we should interpret the law, not make it.”

He quoted Ronald Reagan, who said, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We
didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected and handed on for them to do the same....”

Judge Wilson said, “We all play a part in paying it forward. I will leave you with that challenge as I take it up myself.”