By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – James Lamar Roberts Jr. said he set out to work, not win an award.
Somewhere across the years from Pontotoc High School through politics and courtrooms high and low, the 67-year-old self-described country lawyer insists his varied career path “just has been” without an artful plan.
Recently, the Mississippi Bar Association presented the loquacious Roberts with its Lifetime Achievement Award – presented to those “who have devoted service to the public, profession and administration of justice over the span of a professional career.”
Roberts, one of four 1st Circuit District judges in Northeast Mississippi, said he’s deeply honored by the award, which he said was a surprise, which “affected me with some speechlessness, a rare condition for me.”
It also caused him to reflect on his 45 years since graduating from Millsaps College and earning the law degree that led him to many other things.
“The fork in the road, it’s the story of my life,” he assessed about its twists and turns.
County prosecuting attorney, state commissioner of public safety, chancery judge, Mississippi Supreme Court justice, part-time university professor, municipal judge, member and chairman of numerous boards and commissions – Roberts credits his achievements to his education and his parents, Lamar and Dorothy Roberts, whom he described as very intelligent country folk.
“They taught us, they hoped, to be law-abiding, decent and well-mannered people,” he said of himself and his sister, Joanne Bradley.
His initial life goals: to be a district attorney and a state legislator.
“Turns out I didn’t do either, although I ran for both,” Roberts quipped, “even though I got a healthy experience as a county attorney and worked for a time with the Legislature.”
He concluded, he said, that he liked politics and if he wanted to be successful at that, he should run for something he thought he could win. He spent 12 years as Pontotoc County’s prosecuting attorney and got lots of experience in court and with law enforcement.
Roberts recalls his first case in private practice, defending one of two brothers on trial before Circuit Judge Tommy Senter. Neal B. Biggers Jr. was district attorney and Glen H. Davidson was his assistant.
These days, Biggers and Davidson are busy senior U.S. district judges. Senter also became a federal judge.
But private practice wasn’t to last much more than a decade in Pontotoc County.
Newly elected Gov. Bill Allain asked him, at age 37, to run one of the state’s most high-profile agencies, the Department of Public Safety, which had been rife with politics and patronage across the years.
He said he agonized over leaving home for what he saw as a “finite” appointment in 1984, when governors served only four-year terms and could not succeed themselves.
“But Gov. Allain sent me out there and said to run the agency legally, ethically and honestly,” he recalled. “He said, we’re not going to fix tickets.
“I concluded that if the train was leaving the station, I should catch it for something that doesn’t come along much,” Roberts admitted.
From there, he became a chancery judge when the sitting chancellor died, won a state Supreme Court seat against a sitting judge and became circuit judge with Gov. Haley Barbour’s appointment after Judge Sharion Aycock joined the federal bench.
“Some people say I’m an opportunist,” the expansive Roberts assessed. “But there’s nothing wrong with opportunity, depending upon what you do with it.”
Whatever he’s done, whether it’s serve on mental health or law enforcement boards or lead historical societies, the fourth-great-grandson of an American Revolutionary War soldier said he’s always wanted to make a contribution, if he can.
He also is proud of his Millsaps liberal arts education and his MBA from Mississippi State University, in addition to his law degree from the University of Mississippi.
As for life’s twists and turns, he revels in remembrances of college days working all aspects of retail trade at Kennington’s Department Store in downtown Jackson, and winces a bit for walking away dissatisfied with a days-old stint at University of Tennessee-Martin’s football program or his unsuccessful run for governor.
But they were just other forks in the road, Roberts knows.
At this stage of life, he says he enjoys the circuit bench – something he didn’t plan for either, although it’s a role he said he might have wanted to achieve, if he’d made that decision himself.
His wife, Rose, was with him in Florida for the Bar presentation. Ridgeland attorney and Roberts friend Harold D. Miller Jr. also received the award.
Roberts said he’s “honored beyond belief” to receive the award.
“I accept it as part of a class of many who deserve it.”