Few long-term public officials are more respected, have more friends and fewer enemies than Jim Roberts. The staff of the “Pontotoc Progress” composed this story about Judge Roberts and published it about four weeks ago. We thank the “Pontotoc Progress” for giving NEMISS.NEWS permission to post it.
A reception for Judge James L. Roberts, Jr. will be held in his courtroom at the Pontotoc County Courthouse at 2 pm this Friday, Feb. 28.
By: David Helms
Pontotoc, MS – Reprinted with permission of the” Pontotoc Progress” of Pontotoc, MS.
Circuit Judge James L. Roberts, Jr., confirmed Monday (Jan. 27) that he has tendered a letter of resignation to Governor Tate Reeves.
A native and lifelong resident of Pontotoc, Judge Roberts has been recovering from a stroke suffered in January 2019.
Judge Roberts said his resignation is effective February 29, 2020. It will be up to Governor Reeves to appoint an interim judge to serve until a special election can be held in November.
“For the past year I’ve been hoping and praying to get back on the bench because that activity was my life,” Judge Roberts said. “I’ve enjoyed it very much but it doesn’t look as though I’m going to improve to the point where I can get around in all these court rooms.”
“If every court room in the district was like Pontotoc’s, I wouldn’t have a bit of trouble in the world. Pontotoc has the best because you can get in a wheel chair and get from the ground to the bench, but that’s not true other places.”
The 74-year-old Roberts said it wasn’t an easy decision to resign from a 48-year career in the judiciary system. Roberts has served as a municipal judge, chancery judge, circuit judge and Mississippi Supreme Court Justice.
“I’ve waited longer than I probably should have , I’ve had some pressure to go ahead and do this and decided it was time to resign,” Roberts said. “Do I like it? No, because I’d rather be working, but it looks like I can’t, so that’s the way it is. I did plan to finish this term as circuit judge which would have been three more years counting this year, but health wise I just can’t do it with my wife and me both in the shape I’m in.”
Judge Roberts has been in public service since 1972.
“I’ve had a good run and I am grateful. People have been extremely good to me, the good Lord has been gracious to me and I’m grateful to Him also.”
Roberts served as Pontotoc County Prosecuting attorney from 1972 through 1983. In 1984 Governor Bill Allain appointed Roberts to a four year term as Commissioner of Public Safety.
“I enjoyed serving as commissioner of public safety, I learned a lot and had the great opportunity to speak in every county in Mississippi,” Roberts remembered.
He was appointed chancery judge in 1987 and served five years. Roberts then served as a justice on the Mississippi Supreme Court from 1992 until 1999.
After Roberts left the Mississippi Supreme Court he served two years as Pontotoc Municipal Judge.
“The city needed one and at first I said no, and then I got to thinking how good everyone had been to me in this county and I did it for two years. City courts are very busy and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I learned a lot and I hope I was some help to the city.”
“Then during seven years I wasn’t on the bench, I taught at the University of Southern Mississippi. I taught criminal law and constitutional law. I was also involved in a lot of arbitration and mediation cases at that time. I really enjoyed that about as much as anything I’ve ever done. Plus I really enjoyed teaching.”
Roberts was appointed to the circuit court bench in December 2007, elected to a full term in 2010 and re-elected in 2014 and 2018.
“I tried to remember in circuit court that everyone who appeared before me is a child of God and everybody is entitled to the best hearing they can have. As judge it was my desire to uphold everyone’s rights. People just want to be treated fairly.”
Pontotoc attorney Phil Tutor started practicing law with Roberts in 1976, and is a longtime friend and colleague.
“We had a wonderful partnership and enjoyed a lot of good years working together,” said Tutor, who currently serves as counsel for the Pontotoc County Board of Supervisors and the Pontotoc County School Board.
“Jimmy was a distinguished member of the Mississippi Bar Association, served in virtually every judicial post imaginable, and seemed to be liked by most everyone who came into his courtroom,” said Tutor. “He was not only judicious, but fair and courteous. His response was always measured.”
When Roberts became a judge, he had to moderate his naturally effusive and congenial personality, Tutor said, a necessity of his position he begrudgingly accepted.
“He had to be more restrained,” said Tutor. “What he loved best was visiting and talking with folks, and it saddened him to have to distance himself. He loves people.”
Praise from retired Circuit Judge Fred Wicker, of Pontotoc, dates back to Roberts’ high school days.
“I remember Jimmy playing football in high school,” the judge quipped. “He was also highly intelligent.”
Of his service on the bench, Judge Wicker said that Judge Roberts was well qualified.
“He was always well prepared and fair. He was competent and has a great legal mind. With his pleasing personality, broad experience and high degree of intelligence, Judge Roberts has been one of our states finest public servants. And Judge Roberts’ service to the public went beyond the time he spent on the bench. He served as the historical society president and he can recall little known history just by the mention of someone’s name.”
“He is an extremely good public speaker,” noted Judge Wicker. “Plus he has an extremely good sense of humor. Someone should put him in the Hall of Fame.”
Former Pontotoc County Circuit Clerk Tracy Robinson said it was an honor to work with Judge Roberts.
“I’ve known him all my life, and he brought such a just, yet personal touch to the bench,” said Robinson.
““When he came to the courtroom he was strict, but he always appreciated a joke,” said Robinson. “When he’d look over the top of those glasses, we knew he was very serious. Reliability and consistency were just built into Judge Robert’s character.”
Former State Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller, Jr., served with Justice Roberts from January 1998 until he resigned to run for Governor in April of 1999.
“He was a tremendous mentor and one of the most capable and effective jurists I have ever served with,” Waller said.
“He was in his office early on Monday morning and was one of the last to leave on Friday. He poured every ounce of his considerable energy and intellect into every case he was assigned to.”
Justice Waller said that they may be the only two justices to have ever resigned from the Mississippi Supreme Court to run for governor, with equal results.
“On a different level, very few people in the history of this State have served the breadth of offices that he has, and all with dedicated and selfless devotion to duty. If there was a Hall of Fame for those who have served in public service, he would be of the first rank,” he said.
Current Pontotoc County Circuit Clerk Melinda Nowicki said she met Judge Roberts long before she stepped into her role in the courthouse.
“When I worked at the bank Judge Roberts would always tell me what a good man my daddy was when he came into my office to chat,” Nowicki said.
When she faced that first day of sharing the courtroom with the well tenured judge, “I was a little intimidated because of his experience. But he made me feel at ease. He said everyone who took that office for their first four years had learning to do. He assured me that he would help me through it, and he has.”
She paused for a moment reflecting back on the years. “He told me how proud my daddy would be that I was in the office.”
Nowicki said the one thing that personifies Judge Roberts is his “integrity.’
“If he told you something you knew he meant it. He never went back on his word. He even put the defendants at ease because he would talk about how he knew their family.”
But perhaps what Nowicki will miss the most about Roberts is the history lessons and stories he loved to share.
“I will miss him coming and sitting in the office and telling stories of people in Pontotoc. He would give dates and names and he could remember all that. He knew things that no one else did. I often wished we would have followed him with a tape recorder to capture all those memories. It was a great pleasure just to sit there and soak it all in.”
A public reception for Judge Roberts will be held Friday, February 28, at 2 p.m. in the courtroom of the Pontotoc County Courthouse.
Progress reporters Galen Holley and Regina Butler contributed to this story.
Circuit Judge James L. Roberts, Jr, Pontotoc MS