Pontotoc, MS – The occasion was the retirement ceremony for Judge James L. Roberts, Jr.
The venue was the magnificently restored courtroom of the 1916 Pontotoc County Courthouse.
To re-cast an old phrase: There had probably not been so much brain power in one room in North Mississippi since the last time William Faulkner dined alone.
Several dozen of Mississippi’s top judges and other lawyers, many of them legendary in their own right, gathered in that big, splendid room to honor a big, splendid human being.
More than 500 other Mississippians, family, friends and associates of Judge Roberts filled the benches in the courtroom and lined the walls shoulder-to-shoulder.
Jim Roberts is a good six-and-a-half feet tall, and his prime weight would have been well over 300 lbs. He has a strong face, a big strong jaw and intelligent piercing eyes under dark arched eyebrows.
He’s a big man in every respect. During nearly half a century of public service, he has served in virtually every judicial position in the state, including several years on the Mississippi Supreme Court.
From 1984 to 1988 he was Mississippi’s Commissioner of Public Safety, which means he was in charge of the Mississippi State Highway Patrol and several other law enforcement units.
Roberts is also known as one of the best story tellers in the South. He has a big deep voice, perfect timing, reads an audience flawlessly, and has an endless supply of rollicking stories, most of them about Mississippi and Mississippians. Had he not pursued a career as a lawyer and judge, one can easily imagine Jim Roberts doing stand-up comedy at the best night clubs and theaters in the country.
By our count there were at least 30 judges present for the retirement event Friday afternoon, February 28, 2020.
The most senior judge in the room was the Honorable Thomas Fred Wicker. A member of the Mississippi bar for 72 years, Fred Wicker served as a circuit judge in Mississippi’s First Circuit Court District. Judge Wicker is also well known as a storyteller. Although he is well past 90 years old, Fred Wicker’s skills were in full flower as he told anecdotes about Roberts, including the retiring judge’s time as a high school and college football player. Fred Wicker is the father of Roger Wicker, Mississippi’s senior U.S. Senator.
The second most senior judge in the room was Glen H. Davidson. A few years older than Roberts and also a Pontotoc native, Judge Davidson is the Senior Judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi. He was appointed to the federal bench by President Ronald Reagan. Davidson spoke about Roberts’ distinguished career and their personal friendship of over half a century.
Judge Josiah Colemen of the Mississippi Supreme Court was present, but did not speak. Josiah Coleman is the grandson of the late James P. Coleman, who served as Mississippi governor and as a member of the Mississippi Supreme Court. After retiring from Mississippi elective politics, J. P. Coleman served as the Presiding Judge of the Fifth United States Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
Gary L. Carnathan, a Tupelo attorney and long-time friend of Judge Roberts, is also a renowned raconteur. Carnathan drew dozens of laughs as he told of experience in court with Jim Roberts as his opposing attorney and of pleading cases before Roberts as a judge. Carnathan also declared that he had never heard anyone – even criminals he had sentenced to long prison terms — say anything negative about the integrity of Jim Roberts. That remark drew agreeing applause from all in the room.
Carnathan’s speech was perhaps the most entertaining one of the afternoon – except when it was time for Judge James L. Roberts to speak. Nobody would have wanted to follow Jim Roberts Friday afternoon, or most any other time over the last half century.
Although he was partially disabled by a stroke a little more than a year ago, which brought about his retirement from the bench, Jim Roberts was not only the honoree, he was the funniest and most compelling speaker at his own retirement party. His mental acuity is as sharp as ever. The pathos of his disability, his experiences in working to recover from it, and his realistic assessment of himself and his current situation was both moving and riotously funny.
One hopes he will spend some of his retirement time writing a book, perhaps more than one, telling the hundreds of wise and funny stories.
For more about the remarkable life of James L. Roberts, follow this link:
Attorney Gary L. Carnathan, Judge Fred Wicker, Judge Glen H. Davidson, Judge Jim Roberts, Judge Josiah Colemen, Northeast MS news, Pontotoc County Courthouse, Pontotoc MS