From Pontotoc High School through politics and courtrooms, James L. “Jim” Roberts Jr., a 67-year-old self-described country lawyer, insists his varied career path “just has been” without an artful plan.
The Mississippi Bar recently presented Roberts with its Lifetime Achievement Award.
Roberts said that he was honored by the award, which he said was a surprise, which “affected me with some speechlessness, a rare condition for me.”
“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, 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.
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 said, “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.
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 the Department of Public Safety. 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,” Roberts said. “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.
From there, he became a chancery judge when the sitting chancellor died, won a Mississippi 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,” Roberts said. “But there’s nothing wrong with opportunity, depending upon what you do with it.”
At this stage of life, Roberts 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.
Editor’s Note: Jim Robbs is a native of the Robbs Community just across the Calhoun County line. He is a member of the David Murphree Sons of the American Revolution Chapter based in Bruce.