By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – Friends, colleagues and other admirers of Armis Hawkins paid tribute to the man and his legal career Thursday at the opening of the late Mississippi Supreme Court chief justice’s collection of papers.
The event was held at the J.D. Williams Library at the University of Mississippi.
Michael Mills, now chief judge of the U.S. District Court for Northern Mississippi. He got to know Hawkins on shared car rides to Jackson.
“Many of you served with Armis,” Mills said to the several dozen lawyers in the room, adding the rib, “Many of you were reversed by Armis, too.”
Mills recalled Hawkins’ role as a “true hero” of World War II (in which he fought at Guadalcanal), a devotee of music and literature and a lawyer keenly interested in legal ethics.
Longtime Oxford attorney Hal Freeland discussed several of the major cases that Hawkins, a Natchez native who lived most of his life in Houston, helped decide on the bench.
“He was a great believer in individual rights,” Freeland said. One such case that Hawkins helped reverse involved a robbery conviction in which the prosecutor withheld evidence from the defense team.
In other cases, he had a part in doing away with Mississippi’s sovereign immunity rule, requiring insurance companies to pay punitive damages and opening the way for a new trial for Byron de la Beckwith, who was subsequently found guilty of the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers – 26 years after the case had been retired to files after two juries had been unable to reach a verdict.
Freeland lauded the boldness of the hundreds of opinions Hawkins wrote from the bench: “His writing is clear, and there’s no ambiguity in it.”
Dr. Leigh McWhite, the university’s political papers archivist, said such collections of jurists’ professional papers may reflect on their interactions with the legislative and executive branches, along with their professional and personal activities and relationships.
“Chamber papers include a treasure trove of information that is not available in the official record,” she said.
Ole Miss’ Modern Political Archives has several other collections of legal career papers in the archiving process. Among them are those of J.P. Coleman, a former governor who became chief judge of the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and John Satterwhite, Mississippi’s only president of the American Bar Association.
Dr. Jean Anne Rogers, one of Hawkins’ three offspring, closed the program with a recollection of her father’s sense of humor. When he was asked to speak at her school, he told Jean Anne’s classmates that he gave his children a $15-per-week allowance – an astonishing amount for small-town Mississippi in the 1960s.
Rogers said her father savored the looks on the students’ faces before adding, “Yep, $14 a week in legal advice, and a buck to spend.”
Contact Errol Castens at (662) 281-1069 or firstname.lastname@example.org.