When James Graves first walks into the room for our interview, I'm amazed by his stature. He's a big man. He almost makes me feel like David standing near Goliath until he reaches down and shakes my hand and smiles—not a politician smile, but an early-morning genuine smile. Sitting down, he seems no smaller. When he speaks, his big hands move firmly but smoothly, with the exact rhythm of his voice. But he's not intimidating—not after a few minutes, anyway. He's just someone's dad, even if he happens to also be a Supreme Court justice fighting to keep his seat.
JFP: You majored in sociology at Millsaps. How did you get from sociology to the Supreme Court?
James Graves: I had a different view of college. I majored in a subject I liked for no other reason other than I liked it. Toward your third or fourth year of college, you begin to think about work and what you want to do afterward. I ended up doing social work because I knew I wanted to help people. What I saw in that field is that as you advanced, you have less people contact. You are in more of an administrative position. I enjoyed the people contact so I decided to go to law school. I saw law as an opportunity to effect change, make policy and influence the law. I could also have contact with people.
You left Mississippi for a little while to go to Syracuse University in New York. Why did you come back?
The decision wasn't to come back. The decision was just to leave Mississippi to go to law school. As soon as I finished, I returned. It was somewhat of a difficult decision because the job opportunities offered to me were more lucrative in New York than they were in Mississippi. I knew I wanted to help people, though, and I knew I wanted to do it in Mississippi.
What do you think about people who think you must leave Mississippi to progress?
The three years I spent in New York helped to broaden my horizons, helped to make me a more well-rounded person. New York certainly offers a regional difference. I encountered a lot of different ethnic groups, people from different backgrounds and different countries—much more than I would have in Mississippi. That made me more sensitive to differences, but it also made me more tolerant. Mississippi has progressed tremendously in terms of how we accept differences in race, culture and religion.
You have lectured at Harvard and Syracuse as well as JSU and Tougaloo. You might teach a class at Millsaps next semester. How do these experiences compare?
There are students at Jackson State who could compete anywhere—at Harvard, Yale. Same thing for Tougaloo. But when you get to Harvard Law School, you have a higher concentration of very talented students.
Do you think schools in Mississippi can still progress to where that concentration can be greater here?
There's a lot of progress that needs to be made for higher education in Mississippi. We need to place a lot more emphasis on education, instead of just giving lip service to it.
Do you think there is a place for Supreme Court justices in the education system?
What I try to do is give 70, 80, 90 speeches a year. I almost never give a speech without mentioning education. One of the things I can do is be an advocate. ... I value it so much. When I was nominated for Parent of the Year, I had to make a list of which schools I had visited. I had visited 57 of the 59 schools on my own. ... I want students to see, up close and personal, a public official. I want them to understand that they are important to me. Their education is important to me, and I want it to be important to them. You're stuck with your high school records. If you make Cs, maybe you can overcome it, but your college choices are going to be limited by your transcript. Your financial opportunities are going to be limited.
How do you balance doing all of this with being a Supreme Court Justice?
It is very, very difficult, but I don't think I have the luxury of saying "Alright, my job comes first. My family comes second. Volunteer work comes third." ... Those three things are very important to me, and I've decided that I want to be good at all of them. You do it. My wife goes to bed at 10:30. I sit on the couch, surrounded by briefs and memoranda after that. I get up typically around 6 a.m. Then I get the newspaper, and I read it from front to back. Then I get up and get my day started. ... It's very gratifying to me to give back to the community. It's like my ministry. ... I want to be a good public servant ... [and] make the courts work better for the people. The most important job a parent has is being a parent. Part of being a good parent, though, is setting a good example. I can't say being a parent is the most important thing [and] forget about my job. Being a good parent is having a job and keeping it, taking pride in your work and providing for your family.
What's it like being the only African American on the Mississippi Supreme Court?
Most days when I go to work, I don't think about it. I think about my desire to be a good Supreme Court justice. Obviously, I am African American, and I do not run from my ethnicity, my background, my upbringing or my environment. I embrace it. It's a part of who I am. ... Ultimately, I think people decide whether or not you're good at what you do based on how you do it. You can transcend race by your approach to what you do ... I'm not going to be limited by my race. I'm not going to treat people any differently because of my race. That doesn't mean we don't notice it. Anyone who looks at me knows I'm a big, bald black man. ... It's good to have diversity on the Supreme Court—different points of view, different backgrounds and different upbringings. We're dealing with different people from all over the state. Democracy demands diversity.
The judicial board of conduct says you can't talk about anything that might come before the Supreme Court at any time. Samac Richardson's Web site lists several things that make a citizen "one of us." Do you think it's important to be impartial, and why is it important to show people that you're for everyone in Mississippi?
When I became a Supreme Court Justice, I raised my right hand and took an oath to uphold the laws of the Constitution, not my personal views. While I certainly have personal views upon a number of issues, like most people do, I don't think it is appropriate for me as a sitting judge to make public pronouncements about my views on political issues. That undermines the integrity of the judiciary.
Clarion-Ledger columnist Sid Salter has accused you of being anti-business because you have accepted money from trial lawyers. How do you respond to that?
I don't. Anyone who objectively looks at my record as a judge on the court will see that I have been fair to businesses and consultants.
What's something no one knows about you?
My favorite group of all time is the Temptations, and I got to sing "My Girl" on stage with them in Chicago. That was major. Besides that, I like bream fishing and basketball.
Facts stated by Justice Graves have not been vertified. Visit his candidate blog at jacksonfreepress.com/politics.
DOSSIER: James E. Graves Jr.
Groves began his tenure on the Mississippi Supreme Court on Nov. 1, 2001, appointed by Gov. Ronnie Musgrove. He previously served as a Circuit Court Judge for 10 years. A native of Clinton, Graves is the son of Rev. James E. Graves Sr. and Rosie Graves, who still reside in Clinton. Rev. Graves is the pastor of Fannin Baptist Church in Rankin County. Graves graduated from Sumner Hill High School in Clinton, where he was valedictorian. He is married to Dr. Bettye Ramsey Graves, an assistant vice president at Jackson State University. They met as undergraduate students at Millsaps College and were married after graduation. Graves says he is most proud of being a father to his three sons: Christopher, an attorney at Phelps Dunbar in Jackson; James who is a second-year law student at the University of Virginia; and Jeffrey who is a senior at Jackson State University.
See Justice James Graves' page on the JFP Politics Blog.