By Patsy R. Brumfield
JACKSON – Mississippi’s likely next federal district jurist admits she’s been a judge only for the state’s High School Mock Trial Competition.
But people who know Debra Marie Brown say she’s plenty ready to don the black robe.
Brown, 49, of Jackson, isn’t a judge yet – she merely lacks consent from a majority of U.S. senators to become the state’s first black female to assume that lifetime appointment.
Republican Sens. Thad Cochran of Oxford and Roger Wicker of Tupelo say they see no reason she will not make the grade. A full Senate vote could come at any time after the solons return from their August recess.
Friends say Yazoo City native Brown has a keen sense of focus.
Brown also is described as a planner, a determined individual and likely to be studying any area of judicial experience she sees herself lacking.
“She may be petite, but she has a very strong personality,” said La’Verne Edney of Jackson, an attorney and longtime friend of Brown. “She’s very coordinated, very detailed.”
Edney predicts Brown “will be very prepared” when she assumes the Greenville bench vacated in January 2012 by the sudden death of W. Allen Pepper Jr. of Cleveland.
President Barack Obama nominated Brown for the post in mid-May and the Senate Judiciary Committee approved her nomination by a voice vote Aug. 1.
At her July 10 confirmation hearing, Brown introduced family members, including her parents, Ruthie Brown and Willie James Brown of Yazoo City, a cousin, three of her five sisters and her teenage niece.
With few obstacles, if any, in her way to making Mississippi judicial history, she’ll also become the second Yazoo City product to take the federal bench in recent years, following now-Judge Carlton Reeves’ confirmation in late 2010.
Judicial watchers say that’s more a coincidence that something in the Yazoo waters.
Reeves became Mississippi’s second black district court judge. The state’s first, Henry Wingate, continues on the Jackson-based bench with Reeves.
Sharion Aycock of Tupelo became Mississippi’s first female U.S. district judge in 2007. Brown’s confirmation would make her the state’s second female district court judge since there is none in the Southern District.
• • •
Brown came to Mississippi State University in 1981 to study architecture.
It’s difficult to find a trace of Brown on the MSU campus, other than her academic record. The yearbook, The Reveille, during her entire five-year career, contains only two photos of her – in a large group of students living in freshman dormitory McKee Hall in 1982 and in the American Institute of Architects student group in 1986.
But former acting dean Michael Fazio well remembers her as a student who overcame early struggles to excel and ultimately win the top architecture student honor, the Alpha Rho Chi Medal in her senior year of 1987.
While “some stumbles” are expected with the challenges of architecture, Fazio said he saw Brown “building momentum as she went.”
“She had a plan,” he said. “I don’t know if she knew the details of it, but we are proud of her, and maybe more for her.”
Fazio sees parallels between her architecture training and her later accomplishments in the legal world.
“You solve problems, even present your student projects and defend them in a jury room,” he said of architecture education.
“She had training here for that public pressure to come prepared to respond to questions.”
Her three key character traits, Fazio recalled, were perseverance, diligence and focus.
After graduation from MSU, Brown held internships and architectural associate jobs with firms in the Washington, D.C., area, where she participated in the renovation and restoration of municipal and historic buildings and the construction of new commercial and residential projects.
She is one of a small number of lawyers in the country with both an architectural and law degree, and reportedly is the only lawyer practicing in Mississippi with such credentials.
In 1994, she entered the University of Mississippi School of Law. Since Brown cannot speak for herself, it’s not clear why she made that change.
Through law school, she worked on campus and then as a student clerk with the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office. In the fall of 1996, she was a research assistance for Professor Barbara Phillips.
Phillips termed Brown “so impressive,” saying her student “held herself to a very high level.”
From law school, she went to the big Jackson firm of Phelps Dunbar LLP, first as a summer associate in 1995 and 1996, then to associate, partner and counsel.
She also worked as a summer associate for legal competitor Wise Carter Child & Caraway those same summers, which gave her the connections to land her current shareholder status there in 2012.
Across those 16 years, her career focused on civil litigation, primarily commercial litigation with emphasis on financial and insurance cases.
With her architecture background, it’s no surprise she’s dealt more and more with construction-related matters.
Lately, she’s also gone into employment law and medical malpractice.
In other words, Debra Brown has chiefly been a corporate defender for mid- to large-sized businesses.
But she’s also represented some individual clients, such as state court judges, architects, contractors and pro bono clients.
In answers to a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee questionnaire, Brown says “essentially 100 percent of my practice has been litigation, and 100 percent of that has been civil litigation.”
To the best of her recollection, she says, she’s tried 12 cases to verdict, three before a jury. She was sole counsel on two, chief counsel on one, one of two co-counsel on eight, and associate counsel on one.
Court-watchers say this lack of courtroom time is no black mark – the goal of most litigators is to settle, not go to trial.
While she lists her 10 most significant cases, perhaps her most famous case was to represent the grandson and half-sister of the last surviving sibling of Blues mega-icon, Robert Johnson, who died 51 years before the lawsuit was filed.
At issue was the appeal of a chancery court decision on who were Johnson’s heirs and entitled to receive royalties from his music.
The chancery court said an illegitimate son was Johnson’s sole heir, and Brown handled the appeal with two other attorneys.
While other issues linger, the Mississippi Supreme Court ultimately agreed with the chancery court.
Brown lists her No. 1 case as a defense counsel in a federal lawsuit over a property title in a multimillion-dollar real estate dispute on the Gulf Coast. The court found in her client’s favor and dismissed the claims.
However, her No. 10 case may have had the widest impact. She was co-counsel for the Mississippi Tax Commission, which sued a computer management system company for $1 billion, alleging breach of contract for an automated state tax software system.
The trial jury awarded the commission nearly $500 million in damages, which she said reportedly is one of the largest jury verdicts in Mississippi. But soon after the verdict, the parties settled with the company and its insurers.
• • •
Raised in the Roman Catholic Church, Brown attended parochial school to its terminal fifth grade, then she moved over to Yazoo City schools.
Friends say her parents kept close scrutiny over their five-girl brood with high expectations for them all.
Cham Trotter of Belzoni, a former state Bar president, said he doesn’t know Brown but, if given the chance, would tell her how much her life is about to change.
“It’s a lonely existence,” Trotter notes of the federal judiciary. “You have no idea how your life changes – your friends can’t be your friends anymore. You also have to be careful about any outside involvement.”
To date, Brown’s out-of-office involvement is extensive and deep.
Fellow attorney Edney points to Brown’s strong relationships with high-profile organizations: She gives them the time they deserve, not just as a line on her resume.
She’s an active board member of Operation Shoestring (secretary), Mississippi Center for Justice (chairman), Metro Jackson Black Women Lawyers (its longtime treasurer) and Mississippi State University School of Architecture Advisory Council.
She has been president of the Mississippi Women Lawyers Association and was in the Mississippi Economic Council’s 2008-2009 Leadership Mississippi class.
In 2004, she received the Jackson Young Lawyers’ Outstanding Service Award.
She is a member of the American Bar Association, the Mississippi Bar Association, Magnolia Bar Association and other prominent legal organizations.
In 2008, the Mississippi Business Journal named her to its Mississippi’s 50 Leading Business Women List.
She likes to travel and play “brainy games” like Scrabble and Jeopardy. She is known for her fashion sense, too.
Brown’s private-law income is a confidential matter, but as one of the country’s 677 district court judges, she’ll be paid $174,000 a year.
Prior to her nomination, Brown gained the ABA’s “qualified” rating, which is not as high as its “well qualified” status.
But Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor with experience in judicial nominations, said “qualified is fine.”
“President Obama never nominates without qualified ratings,” Tobias said.
Brown’s career and self-admissions show she has no experience with the criminal side of her likely new job.
But Jackson attorney Edney predicts her friend is already plowing ahead with intense study and discussions with current judges so that’s she’s more prepared when the time comes.
“I am not concerned one bit,” Edney said about that deficit. “She’s going to do fine.”
Michael Berk, director of MSU’s School of Architecture these days, said he’s known Brown the past 15 years.
Her record at MSU, he said, indicated promise of professional merit through her attitude and personality.
“We absolutely knew that she would make an important mark in the world,” Berk said.
Perhaps the Mississippi Bar is even more confident about her future: Her membership listing shows her status as “judge.”
While Edney, whose name also was in the mix for the judicial nomination, said becoming a federal judge likely is the goal of almost every lawyer, it takes more than ambition and intelligence.
It takes circumstances beyond your control, depending upon the president’s politics, support from home-state senators and a vacancy on the bench.
“The stars must align just right,” Fazio said. “You’ve got to put yourself in a position to be chosen.”