Former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice James Robertson died Dec. 10
December 12, 2023
Former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice James Lawton Robertson died of cancer on December 10, 2023, at his Jackson home, surrounded by his family. He was 83.
Visitation will be held on Saturday, Dec. 16, from 1 to 3 p.m. at Wright and Ferguson Funeral Home in Flowood. At a later date, family and friends will gather for a memorial service.
Justice Robertson served on the Supreme Court from 1983 through 1992. Gov. William Winter appointed him to a vacancy on the Court on Jan. 17, 1983. At age 42, he was the youngest justice on the Court at that time. He was elected to an eight-year term, and served until Sept. 1, 1992.
Colleagues, friends and family remembered Justice Robertson as a brilliant jurist, a prolific writer and a man with interests ranging from baseball to opera.
Former Justice Reuben V. Anderson said, “He was a Harvard Law graduate. He kept the reputation. He was a brilliant man....And he had so many other interests, sports and the arts. He was a Renaissance man.”
Attorney Danny Cupit of Jackson said, “He was a student of history and the law and was probably the most principled judge I have known. His opinions were clear and there was no mistake about what the opinion was holding, and those opinions were without regard to ramifications. It was purely and simply his elucidation of his perception of the law.”
Attorney Michael B. Wallace of Jackson, who practiced law with Robertson at Wise, Carter, Child & Caraway, said, “He was not only brilliant. He was courageous. As a judge he would apply the law as he saw it, no matter where the chips would fall.” Some of those decisions included publicly unpopular reversals of death penalties. “He thought people deserved a fair trial and he was willing to do what was necessary to make that happen.... He believed very strongly and had the courage to act upon it.”
Wallace and Robertson were at opposite ends of the political spectrum. That never hindered their friendship and professional association. “I loved Jimmy. He made me think and I made him think. I hope that we made each other better lawyers.”
Former Sen. Charlie Ross, who also practiced law with Robertson at Wise Carter, said, “He did it all. He wrote articles. He was a Supreme Court Justice. He taught at the law school at Ole Miss. He taught at Fordham. He was very successful in private practice. He had a very full, well-balanced career.” Ross said, “He was a soft-spoken Southern gentleman, but he was no fading flower....He was just a great source of wisdom. He had great insight beyond the legal merits.”
Robertson practiced law for 25 years at Wise Carter, joining the firm in January 1993. Ever the teacher, he enjoyed mentoring young associates and law clerks as they began their law careers.
Robertson was a law professor before joining the Supreme Court. He was a member of the faculty of the University of Mississippi School of Law from 1977 through 1992. He began teaching part-time while in private practice with the Greenville firm Keady, Campbell and DeLong, then taught full-time from 1979 until his appointment to the Supreme Court. He continued to teach a legal philosophy course while serving on the Court.
His family said in his obituary, “‘Judge Jimmy’ was devoted to his students and always wanted his former students to know how much he valued them and hoped that his efforts in their behalf were beneficial. He wished to be remembered for his last-day-of-class thoughts that he shared with each one and eventually became a 1983 Mississippi Law Review article, ‘The Lawyer as Hero.”’
Robertson spent a semester in Manhattan as visiting professor at Fordham University School of Law in the fall of 1992. His family wrote, “He considered that assignment the lark of his life, with evenings of opera at Lincoln Center across the street from the law school and early morning runs through Central Park.”
The family said in the obituary, “For all his academic and professional accomplishments, Robertson showed the same zeal for his private interests. An enthusiastic jogger, he ran countless races in cities from New York to San Francisco, but his favorite running memories were in the company of the Pocahontas Trotters, a Jackson-based club that was more committed to socializing than exercising. A lover of the opera, he traversed the country following performances of his favorites, especially Wagner, and he was President of the Mississippi Opera Association in 1996-97. An ardent sports fanatic, Robertson relished any opportunity to talk about seeing Ted Williams and Bill Russell play in person, or how he was in the press box to watch Johnny Vaught’s greatest football teams and in the stands for both the Billy Cannon punt return and the Bryce Drew buzzer beater, arguably the two most painful lessons ever in what it means to be an Ole Miss fan.”
Robertson earned a degree in history at the University of Mississippi in 1962. In a 2003 oral history interview, he said that his major was history by default, as it was the subject in which he had enough hours to complete a major. His other course work was spread over interests in economics, political science and English, and he took numerous accounting and math courses, as his father wanted him to become a certified public accountant.
He worked for the college newspaper during his entire time as a student. The paper became the Daily Mississippian the year he was editor, having previously been a weekly publication. His family noted, “In this position, he challenged the school’s approach to race-related matters, and his outspoken editorial policy sparked efforts to impeach him as editor by both the Campus Senate and the Mississippi Legislature. Robertson refused to back down and would go on to be inducted into the Ole Miss Hall of Fame.”
He was editor during the school’s protracted fight to deny admission to James Meredith. Meredith became the first African-American to be admitted to the University of Mississippi in October 1962, a few months after Robertson graduated.
Robertson wanted to pursue a career in journalism. He worked as a sports reporter for the Delta Democrat Times in high school. The legendary editor Hodding Carter Jr. was an early mentor. Robertson was accepted at the University of Missouri, a noted journalism school. He applied to Harvard Law “on a lark,” he said, and got accepted. He earned his law degree from Harvard in 1965.
Robertson’s love of the turn of a phrase is reflected in his judicial opinions, court briefs and scholarly articles. Ross said, “He loved the law and he loved history, and he approached his writing, whether for a client or a book, as if it was more of an art form rather than for business.”
Some of his Supreme Court opinions could pass for literature as well as legal opinions. Among the best remembered of those is one sometimes referred to as “the blue hole case,” Dycus v. Sillers, 557 So. 2d 486, issued Jan. 10, 1990.
The decision begins, “This is a case about a fishin' hole. It lies in western Bolivar County near the River, and at birth was named Beulah Crevasse, though many have long called it the Merigold Blue Hole.” He described the competing interests of fishermen, landowners and hunting club leaseholders, saying, “these and more form important background forces driving this civil warfare which we are charged to channel within the levees of the law.” The decision continued, “This is also a case about a people, the waters they fish, and a unique culture and lore. These form an ambiguous but real part of our life whose pulse is preserved in the product of our poets from the famous to the obscure.”
Then he spent the next 3,000 or so words quoting William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Ellen Douglas, Barry Hannah and others.
The prolific prose prompted Chief Judge Roy Noble Lee to grouse in a concurring opinion, “Finally, I have never attempted to edit the opinions of my colleagues on this Court. However, in my view, the first twelve pages of the majority opinion would best have been left unsaid, or relegated to a work of prose or fiction. The Bench and Bar have much law and many opinions to read and digest and should be permitted to choose when and where to read for pleasure.”
Former Presiding Justice Chuck McRae said, “He was a prolific writer....He was a hard worker and he was a student of the law.”
Justice Robertson in his nine years on the Court authored 579 majority opinions, 124 concurring opinions and 85 dissents.
Former Presiding Justice Fred L. Banks Jr. thumbed through a copy of Robertson’s 2019 book Heroes, Rascals and the Law as he remembered his former colleague. “He was super smart. I relied on him a lot.”
Robertson’s latest book, Rowdy Boundaries: True Mississippi Tales from Natchez to Noxubee, was published in November 2023. Justice Anderson said, “He would send me all of his drafts to comment on and all I could say was “wow’ at his ability to work as hard as he did.”
Among Robertson’s many scholarly works was his volume on the Mississippi Constitution in the Encyclopedia of Mississippi Law.
Family noted that Robertson “considered his most significant professional affiliation the life membership in the American Law Institute, and he contributed to the revered Restatements of the Law.”
Tucker Carrington served with Robertson on the American Law Institute. Carrington said, “There are not that many members from Mississippi and fewer still who attend the meetings. He told me it was one of the most valuable things that he had ever done in his legal career. It wasn’t just something you put on your resume. It was a meaningful, substantive obligation.”
Carrington, director of the Mississippi Innocence Project at the University of Mississippi School of Law, said that Robertson was an early supporter, giving of his time and financial contributions. He also helped represent defendants in post-conviction proceedings.
Carrington also recalled Robertson’s vast knowledge of human connections. “He had this real affinity for people and connections and family and friendship. He always sort of knew the story with people. I always really appreciated that.... He always had a story, or six.”
James Lawton Robertson was born on July 30, 1940, the son of Susie and L.D. Robertson. He noted in the 2003 oral history interview that his birth in Greenwood was due to a 1937 Supreme Court decision that forced his mother’s obstetrician to relocate to Greenwood. Robertson’s family lived in Greenville, and he grew up there.
He is survived by his wife, Workers Compensation Commission Administrative Law Judge Linda Thompson; sons Rob Robertson, Lamar Robertson and Chris Robertson; brother Dr. L.D. Robertson; sisters Dr. Lucie Bridgforth and Bonnie Gardner; and five beautiful and talented grandchildren.
The obituary is at this link: