CHANCERY COURT IN DAYS OF YORE, PART ONE

June 29, 2010 § 3 Comments

Last week in Clarke County I took the bench one day in a dark suit and dispatched the day’s business in that attire because my robe was in chambers with a Circuit Judge whom I did not wish to bother.  The Chancery Clerk pointed out later that the younger lawyers were abuzz about it.  They had never seen such a thing.  Imagine — a judge adjudicating sans black robe.

Down through the decades it was a hallmark of our courts that the Chancery Judge did not wear a robe.  The Chancellor presided in his (yes, in those days there were few female Chancery Judges) dark suit, dispensing equity like an ancient Titan loosing thunderbolts.   

Long after Circuit Judges donned the robe, Chancellors continued unrobed.  It was not until the late 80’s, as far as I recall, that Chancellors donned robes in our part of the state, and then not every Chancellor did.  Judge John Clark Love in District Six never wore a robe until the day he retired in 2005.  Neither did his counterpart, Judge Ed Prisock. 

The philosophy behind the robe is that it instantly lends authority and recognition of office to the wearer, but Chancellors in those pre-robe days didn’t really need a cloak to lend them weight.  Authority emanated from them like deadly radiation from a chunk of uranium.  For those of us who practiced before some of the really great old lions of the Chancery bench, there was no question of authority.  A wilting glance or stabbing remark could inflict a wound in one’s case that would bleed to a fateful conclusion.  Heaven help the unprepared lawyer.   

Billy Neville of Meridian was the commander of his court room.  He sat on the bench, pipe jutting MacArthur-like out of his face, whittling on a cedar plug until he carved an eye-shaped piece — rounded in the middle and sharp on each end — whence he would start another.  A lying witness never escaped his ire.  “Suh!” he would thunder, “Do you expect me to believe that?”  You knew that was coming because only a few questions before he had begin running his hand across his forehead and then over his scalp as first his cheeks and then his temples and then his forehead changed hues from peach to crimson to scarlet.  “Mr. Bailiff, suh!  Take this man upstairs!” 

Judge Neville was also a master at communicating subtly to the attorney the futility of one’s case.  “Yes, suh, I will sustain the objection because this has nothing to do with the case, and even if it did there is no law in Mississippi that would permit me to do what the Complainant has prayed for.  Now you may proceed, suh.”  Okay, how do you frame the next question when the judge has just let all the air out of your case?

Judge Ed Cortright of Yazoo City was a gentleman of the first order and a scholar of note in his long career on the bench.  He was reversed on appeal only once that I know of, and that by Frank Coleman, now County Judge Coleman, of Meridian.  As gentlemanly as he was, there was a steely side to Judge Cortright, and he could communicate his displeasure at a lawyerly gaffe in no uncertain terms.  His disdain for the illogical argument or a position unsupported by the law was unmistakable. 

Judge Mike Sullivan of Columbia was so revered and respected that he was elevated to the Supreme Court, where he made his mark as a voice for Chancery Court in the appellate court.  His calm demeanor and measured speech left no doubt who was in control of his court room. 

Judge John Clark Love of Kosciusko had a way of eviscerating lawyers who wandered ill-prepared into his lair. 

Judge Ray Montgomery of Canton could shrink your head two to three sizes from his tirade if you wound up on his wrong side or if your case did not impress him.        

There were many robeless Chancellors, too many to mention, some great and some forgettable.  We sometimes quaked in their presence, but in the crucible of their courtrooms we were molded into better lawyers.

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