James Graves: Dialogue with a Supreme Court judge in Mississippi

The National Bar Association awarded him its first Distinguished Jurist Award in 1996. The National Conference of Black Lawyers named him Judge of the Year in 1992. The Millsaps College Black Students Association named him Alumnus of the Year in 1993. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove appointed him to the Mississippi Supreme Court on October 29, 2001. But he’s most proud of being named Parent of the Year for the 2000-2001 school year by the Jackson Public School District.

Justice James E. Graves Jr., 47, is a Seventh-day Adventist and is active in his church in Jackson as religious liberty secretary. Born to a Baptist minister, Justice Graves is married to Dr. Betty Graves. They have three sons, ages 27, 20, and 18.

In recognition of his untiring efforts to save and help children, Graves was named Champion Adopter for his mentoring in Lake Elementary Schools’ “Boys for a Brighter Tomorrow” program. He led the high school Mock Trial Team to its state championship in 2001. He is intensely devoted to children everywhere, loves their direct honesty, and is committed to being a positive influence in their lives.

Graves was born in Hinds County, Mississippi, and graduated from Sumner Hill High School in Clinton, where he was valedictorian of his class. He completed a B.A. degree in sociology from Millsaps College, where he met and studied the Bible with Betty, a Seventh-day Adventist, whom he married after graduation and baptism. He earned his law degree from the Syracuse University College of Law and a Master of Public Administration degree from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York. He was admitted to the Mississippi Bar in 1980 and has served the state of Mississippi in a number of roles. His service includes director of the Division of Child Support Enforcement of the Department of Human Services, circuit court judge of Hinds and Yazoo counties, and private law practice.

Graves has taught trial advocacy at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and has served as adjunct professor at Jackson State University, where he taught both media law and civil rights law.

Yet, it is Psalm 75:6 and 7 that keep Justice Graves grounded: “For promotion cometh neither from the east, nor from the west, nor from the south. But God is the judge: he putteth down one, and setteth up another (KJV).”

Justice Graves, what led you to pursue law?

I wanted to be in a profession that would allow me to effect the most change in society and to help people.

Help us to understand what it means to grow up in Mississippi during an era when the legal system opposed civil rights for people of color and now to sit as a supreme court justice of that very same state.

It is awesome and very humbling. It motivates me to work very hard, because for so many people in Mississippi, it means a lot that someone like me sits on the Mississippi Supreme Court—someone who grew up in a small town here and went to college here. It just behooves me to do the best that I can in this job.

Do you ever feel as if you’re being placed in a precarious position?

I don’t know if I’d call it precarious. I think it’s one where, obviously, there’s an awful lot of scrutiny for two reasons: (1) because it’s the highest court in this state and then (2) I’m the only African-American who sits on the court. But I don’t know that I feel it’s any more precarious to me than it would be for anyone else. It’s one where you have a lot of power and a lot of responsibility, and so you just ought to be careful and deliberate in making decisions on this court.

What case or cases have had the most impact on you?

Criminal cases. Sentencing decisions were the most difficult decisions that I had to make as a trial judge. When you can give someone anywhere from zero to 30 years for the sale of cocaine, for example, you literally hold that person’s liberty in your hands. That’s major decision-making power, and it’s one that I never took lightly.

How do you balance your religious beliefs with your responsibilities as a Supreme Court justice?

I don’t see the two as being in conflict, and I don’t see the two as a situation where I have to participate in one to the exclusion of the other. I can’t imagine doing one without the other. The religion is always there: you want to be fair, you want to do the right thing, and you want to look at what is just and morally correct. That’s the prayer I pray every day—to make the right ruling for the right reason. I don’t separate the two.

Do you find opportunities for witnessing about Jesus?

All the time. It’s not so much through the profession; it’s the ancillary opportunities that are presented because I do what I do. There are tons of opportunities to do witnessing and to talk about my religious beliefs and my belief in Christ and how that influences what I do. I let people know that the 10 years I was a trial judge, I never walked into that courtroom without getting on my knees and praying first.

Is it important that Adventists and the church be vocal on such controversial issues as cloning, the death penalty, and now security?

I don’t know that it’s as important to be vocal as it is to be aware of those issues. I think, historically, Adventists thought it was not important to participate in the political process. That’s just not true. As more Adventists become involved in politics, it’s important that other Adventists are involved also. I never knew an Adventist to have any reluctance to call me (when I practiced law) when one of their kids was arrested, when somebody went to jail, when they needed to get somebody out, or when they had a question about a domestic problem. And when somebody died and they had a question about an estate or will or property, they called.

But when you’re involved in politics, they’re not aware of it, they didn’t know you were running, they didn’t know they needed to help, they didn’t know they needed to vote. It’s important that they be aware, that they participate, and that they’re active. I don’t know that they need to make public proclamations or public statements. But they need to be aware of issues, and they need to participate in the political process, because cloning is in part going to be a political issue. And Congress is going to consider laws and pass laws, and all of that is politics. So yes, yes, yes, it’s important.

Will your position now create a new view for Adventists and force them to look at some of these social or religious issues with a different attitude, and even cause certain issues to be pushed to the forefront?

I hope that it will. If just the position and what is attendant to it provokes thought and dialogue, that’s good.

What do you say to Christians who believe that their disputes should not be decided in a court of law?

Hooray! Frankly, I wish fewer people would come to the court to resolve their disputes. I’ve seen cases where family members were trying to resolve issues in court that, in my opinion, should have been resolved over dinner. Obviously, I don’t subscribe to the point of view that disputes should never be decided in court “because I’m a Christian, and I don’t believe in that.” There are some disputes that are appropriately resolved in the courts; those are what the courts are for, and that’s where those disputes ought to be resolved.

You received the Innovation Award in 2000 for your pioneering efforts in bringing in the first state-of-the-art high-tech courtroom in Mississippi State Courts, in establishing the first court website for a Mississippi State Trial Court, and in implementing electronic filing of court documents. What have been the advantages of such changes?

The trials go faster. They’re more interesting. The lawyers aren’t hauling in TV sets and VCRs and having to do blowups. You can take an 8” x 10” photo and put it under that machine and it’s blown up on a 15-foot parabolic screen. It’s a more efficient and cost-effective way of presenting evidence to a jury. The court website allows people to log on and pull up information that they otherwise would have to call the court for. With the website, you log on and the information is there, anytime, day or night. And there’s an obvious advantage to the electronic filing of documents that allows you to store on one CD what would otherwise fill a box. Courthouses all over the country have been running out of storage space for documents.

In the post-September 11 atmosphere, could decisions be made that will curtail public movement, including limiting church attendance?

I think you are going to see, on the part of some, a willingness to infringe on certain civil and religious liberties in the name of security and antiterrorism. And there will be those willing to give up certain freedoms in the name of security. I certainly think that such decisions are on the horizon.

How difficult do you think your position might be in making some of those decisions from a legal versus a religious standpoint?

I’m going to do what I think is right under the law and under the circumstances. If there’s some constitutional prohibition, then I’ve got to vote to uphold the Constitution, which I think is broad enough to encompass a sufficient amount of religious liberty and freedom.

It’s said that you are most proud of being named Parent of the Year by the Jackson Public School District for the 2000-2001 school year. What makes you an outstanding parent?

Being a good father has always been of paramount importance to me. Since my son’s senior year in high school was his last year at home, it was important to me to have dinner ready for him when he’d come home from band practice and other activities.

That’s a nice dad.

My father was always such a good father, and he still is. If I could just be half as good a father to my children as my father has been to me, then I’ll be a good father. The most important thing I want said about me when I’m dead is that I was a good father to my sons.

Interview by Audrey Stovall and Roy Brown.Audrey Stovall is an editor for a university in Alabama. Her e-mail: stovallay@hotmail.com Roy Brown is host of PBS-WGCU-TV’s “In Focus” and news producer for NPR in Ft. Myers, Florida. His e-mail: RBrown@fgcu.edu