Graves makes history as first black Mississippian seated on Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals

By Earnest McBride

JA Contributing Editor

Mississippi’s most recently transformed Supreme Court Justice, James E. Graves, Jr., made history in more ways than one last Thursday as he underwent investiture as a member of the U. S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals based in New Orleans.A native of Clinton, Graves becomes the first black Mississippian and the first active Mississippi member of the Supreme Court to be appointed to the federal appeals court. He will also be the only Mississippian to hold a seat on the federal 5th Circuit Appeals Court, having given up his seat on the Supreme Court before taking up the new appointment set in motion by President Barack Obama’s nomination of him on June 10, 2010.Graves’ welcome to the court last week was about as deep as it was wide, with a vast array of his fellow justices, former colleagues from Mississippi’s higher and lower courts, his law students, bar associates, friends and family filling the stage and overcrowded auditorium, and spilling out into the overflow rooms where closed circuit TV screens transmitted the heartwarming occasion.It was no mean feat that he had received letters of congratulations from the Chief Justice of the U. S. Supreme Court, the U. S. Attorney General and the  Director of the FBI. With the flurry of activity surrounding the 50th year celebration of the Freedom Riders and Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi glaringly present all over downtown Jackson, the 57-year-old Graves took note of the dream-like nature of what was happening on his behalf.This appointment to the Court of Appeals was the fulfillment of his own American Dream as well as that of the people closest to him, Graves said. “There are those who say the liberation of humanity, the freedom of men, women and minds is nothing but a dream,” he said. “They are right. It is a dream. It is the American Dream. I want to thank all of you for sharing this chapter of my uniquely American Dream with me.”Harvard Law Professor James Ogletree said via a videotape that he has known Graves as a close friend, a fellow-hunter and fishing companion, as well as a frequent guest lecturer in his classes at Harvard and as a judge. Graves has attained a remarkable set of achievements up to this point in his life, he said.“It is extraordinary for Mississippi to have its first ever black judge on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals,” Ogletree said. Former state Supreme Court Judge Fred Banks was Graves’ immediate predecessor on the state’s highest court. Banks, now a lawyer in private practice, recommended that the audience view the PBS documentary on the Freedom Riders and to participate in the current 50th-year commemoration.“The Freedom Rides of 1961 created the space for James Graves to exist today,” Banks said. “When the Freedom Riders came in 1961, there were only four black lawyers practicing in the state of Mississippi. Only one had finished a regular law school. In 1961, there were no blacks serving in the courthouses who weren’t cleaning up. No blacks sat on juries; there were no black judges, no black deputy sheriffs, and no black police officers. It wasn’t a place for black people to be except when they were standing before the bench awaiting sentencing. It was the catalytic courage of the Freedom Riders that helped to bring all that to an end.” Graves received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology from Millsaps College. He graduated from the Syracuse University College of Law in 1980, earning a Master of Public Administration there a year later.From his first job as staff attorney at Central Mississippi Legal Services, he began working as a legal counsel to various state agencies, eventually becoming special assistant attorney general and serving as director of Child Support Enforcement in the state’s Department of Human Services..Graves was appointed circuit court judge for Hinds County in 1991 before being selected by Gov. Ronnie Musgrove in 2001 to succeed Banks on the state Supreme Court. On the recommendation of 2nd District Congressman Bennie Thompson, President Obama nominated Graves for the Fifth Circuit Appeals Court in 2010. But with the U. S. Senate failing to act on the nomination, it died. President again nominated Graves for the seat in January 2011, this time winning Senate confirmation.Graves has taught as an adjunct professor at Millsaps, Tougaloo and Jackson State University. He is a teaching member for the Harvard Law School’s Trial Advocacy Workshop. He also coaches mock trial teams in local colleges and high schools.Among the many honors he has received as both a legal expert and citizen, Graves was named Parent of the Year by the Jackson Public School District in 2001 He received the Maxwell Public Administration Award from Syracuse University in 2009. He has gained numerous NAACP awards for his legal work. Graves’ mother and father attended his investiture, with his father delivering the closing prayer. Chief Appeals Court Judge Edith H. Jones presided over the ceremonies.Judge Graves is married to Dr. Bettye Ramsey Graves, associate vice president for enrollment management at Jackson State University. Together, they have three sons, who are also dedicated to law careers.Graves’ appointment to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals is a lifetime appointment, as are all federal judicial appointments.