Johnny Williams to turn over 10th district seat

By BUSTER WOLFE,

Tenth District Senior Chancery Judge Johnny L. Williams became a judge because he wanted to help someone. As long as he believed he could accomplish that in Family and Chancery courts, he wanted to stay.

However, after 33 years on the bench – 11 in Municipal Court and 22 in Chancery, Williams has decided not to run for re-election in 2018 and will retire at the end of the year.

The 74-year-old Williams said he is excited about retirement.

“I’m looking forward to it,” he said, noting that he has had only one opponent in his five elections. “If I didn’t feel like I had served my time, I would have decided to run again. I have to combine the 22 years with the 11 years, and all of that time counts in the retirement system. If lawyers respect you enough not to run against you, at some point in time you need to step aside and give somebody else a chance to serve. There are a lot of bright, experienced and good lawyers out there who I know are interested in becoming judges. I would like to give them a chance and not stay too long.”

Family is also important to Williams, who has been married to his wife, Carol, for 53 years. Their two children are both lawyers living in California and Alabama.

“I feel like I’m relatively healthy and I want to enjoy my children and my grandchildren,” he said. “I want to do a lot of traveling in the first year.”

Williams, who was former Gov. Kirk Fordice’s first African-American appointment in 1996, said he remained on the Chancery Court bench so that he would be able to help people.

“In Circuit Court and especially if you practice criminal law, sometimes you’re representing somebody who may be innocent or you are representing somebody who is guilty,” he said. “All too often, they are guilty and they are young men who end up in jail and their lives are ruined. Once you get a felony record, then it’s hard to overcome that. I try to tell people when they come to my court that although they may be going through a divorce or losing custody of a child, it’s not the end of the world. You can start your life anew or you don’t have to hate the other person, if you’re going through a divorce or child custody.”

Dealing with people on personal issues can be emotional, Williams said.

“Sometimes they end up with a lot of hate and a lot of anger,” he said. “It’s hard to put that aside. It’s emotional and it’s psychological, but I always try to encourage them by showing them that it’s not the end of the world.”

Chancery Court centers on family relations more than Circuit and County court, Williams said.

“They say it is ‘a court of limited jurisdiction,’ but we hear a lot of different types of cases,” he said. The only cases we don’t hear are we do not hear criminal cases. We don’t have jury trials, so everything is left up to the judge. The reason I say that it is a court of limited jurisdiction is because it is described by statute. We hear cases mostly that have been codified in Mississippi law by statute passed by the Legislature or the Mississippi Constitution. Everything else would probably go to Circuit or County court.

As far as a family court, Williams said, “We hear a lot of divorces, but we also hear contracts, property disputes, estates when someone dies and has a will or doesn’t have a will … We hear all of those cases pertaining to a child that comes before us.”

One case that stood out in Williams’ mind during his years as a Chancery Court involved parental rights.

“That case involved a married couple who got a divorce and information was withheld from the court as well as the natural father,” he said. “The natural father was never notified that this woman was carrying his child before she remarried. The punitive father by the birth records had sought to assert his rights over the natural father. That case went all the way to the Mississippi Supreme Court, which held that if the natural father was never notified that he was the father of the child, he could not be shut out of the proceedings. I heard that case about six years ago and it made some law. It was decided by the Supreme Court.”

In the 10th Chancery Court District – which includes Lamar, Forrest, Marion, Pearl River and Perry counties – Williams said he had known some outstanding jurists, including 10th district – Dawn Beam, who is now on the state Supreme Court; Supreme Court Justice Michael D. Sullivan and Court of Appeals Judge Eugene Love Fair Jr.

Williams followed Sebe Dale Jr. as senior chancellor.

“He was a great model and mentor who was highly respected by the judges and the bar,” he said. “I had a good teacher to follow in his footsteps.”

Williams, who has been honored by the local Boy Scouts for his work with youth, said he has the option to become a Senior Chancellor after he takes a year off after retirement.

“We hear cases that other judges have conflicts in mostly because sometime a judge will know someone or a judge will have issues that they have somehow allowed themselves to have knowledge or sometimes they just want to avoid impropriety or the appearance of it,” he said. “We’re not supposed to hear cases that we have any kind of interest or conflict in.”

After he steps down, Williams said he also hopes he is remembered for several things.

“I hope they remember that I had judicial temperament because I think that is very important, not only for the lawyers and the bar that come before you, but also for the public in this kind of job,” he said. “I hope that they remember that I was fair and impartial. I hope they remember about the type of cases that came before me.”

Chancery Court Judge Deborah Gambrell will become senior chancellor after Williams’ retirement.