TUPELO • The pending resignation of Judge James Roberts will leave the First Circuit District with only three judges.
Under state law, Gov. Tate Reeves will appoint a new judge to sit on the bench until a special election can be held this November. If Reeves fails to make the appointment before Roberts officially steps down Feb. 29, it won’t be that big a difference for the district.
Roberts suffered a stroke Jan. 24, 2019 during the middle of a trial in Tishomingo County. He has not returned to work. The other three judges essentially picked up the slack for the last 12 months. That task was made harder since Senior Judge Paul Funderburk was the only one with bench experience. Judges Kelly Mims and John White were elected in November 2018. Since Mims was a former public defender, he could not hear any case where he previously represented a defendant.
“It’s been rough, especially beginning the year with two new judges,” Funderburk said. “(Judge Roberts) has a lot of knowledge and experience, I have been able to rely on him for advice.
“I don’t know of any judge with more experience than Jimmy. (Roberts has served as a city judge, circuit judge, chancery judge and a state supreme court judge.) It simplifies things when you can rely on someone with that knowledge. He’s been greatly missed.”
The three judges took on the civil cases on Roberts docket. For help on the criminal side, they had Judge Jim Pounds, who retired in 2019.
“(Pounds) was a big help filling in,” Funderburk said. “He was very gracious to come back. Judge Pounds knows all the players and was able to step right in.
“With his help and the other two judges, we have been able to handle his docket for the year.”
In late December, Funderburk wrote the Mississippi Supreme Court to appoint a special judge on a temporary basis. The high court had not acted on the matter before Roberts’ resignation rendered the request moot.
After graduating from Ole Miss Law School in 1971, Roberts served as the Pontotoc County Prosecuting Attorney for 12 years. He was elected to chancery court in November 1987 and served five years. He then served on the Mississippi Supreme Court from 1992 until 1999. Following his term on the state’s highest court, Roberts became the Pontotoc Municipal Court judge.
Roberts was appointed to the circuit court bench in December 2007 and planned it to be a temporary stop. “I intended to serve maybe about a year as Circuit Judge and then disappear from that,” Roberts said in 2019. “I have continued to serve because I think I owe a debt for the state of Mississippi sending me to the Judicial College and to other schools.”
Not only was he re-elected in 2010, 2014 and 2018, he ran unopposed each time.
“He was as successful in politics as anyone I know, but Jimmy was not a politician, he’s a public servant,” Funderburk. “He loves public service.”
Chancery Court Judge Jacqueline Mask described Roberts as “a wonderful person and a great role model.”
“He is one of the most accomplished jurists I know,” Mask said. “He has held so many positions in the judiciary.
“He is a very accomplished person and a great storyteller. He’s got a great mind and great memory. He will be missed.”
Mask had the privilege of assisting Roberts in what may have been his final official act as a circuit judge. On Dec. 29, 2019, the two judges swore in all the elected officials in Pontotoc County.
Instead of doing a mass investiture, Roberts took the time to swear in each officials one at a time. The act gave many hope that he would soon return to the bench. But about four weeks later, he sent his resignation letter to the governor.