James Earl Graves Jr. (United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.)

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James Earl Graves Jr.

“Throughout his career James E. Graves has shown unwavering integrity and an outstanding commitment to public service,” said President Obama.1

James Earl Graves Jr. (born November 19, 1953) is a United States Circuit Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

Early years

The son of a Baptist minister, Graves was born and raised in Clinton, Mississippi. He attended Sumner High School in Clinton and graduated as valedictorian with the highest grade point average and ACT score in his class. Graves then attended Millsaps College and graduated in 1975 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology. After working at the Mississippi Department of Public Welfare for almost two years, he enrolled at Syracuse University College of Law, where he received his Juris Doctor in 1980. He also earned a Master of Public Administration degree from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University in 1981. He is a practicing Seventh-day Adventist.

Legal career

Graves began his legal career as a staff attorney at Central Mississippi Legal Services in 1980. He then worked in the private practice of law for three years, before returning to public service work. Graves served as legal counsel for both the Health Law Division and the Human Services Division of the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office. He also worked as a Special Assistant Attorney General for the State of Mississippi and served as the Director of the Division of Child Support Enforcement in the Mississippi Department of Human Services.

Mississippi state judicial service

In 1991, Governor Ray Mabus appointed Graves as a Circuit Court Judge in Hinds County, Mississippi. Graves was then elected to the position later that year in a special election, in which he received seventy-seven percent of the votes cast. Graves was later re-elected without opposition in 1994 and 1998.

Graves was appointed to the Mississippi Supreme Court by Governor Ronnie Musgrove in 2001 and later won election to the Court in 2004. At the time, Graves was the only African-American Justice on the Court. The first African-Americans to serve on the Mississippi Supreme Court were Reuben Anderson, who served from 1985 to 1990, followed by Fred L. Banks Jr. from 1991 to 2001.

Federal judicial service

On June 10, 2010, President Barack Obama nominated Graves to be a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to replace Judge Rhesa H. Barksdale, who assumed senior status on August 8, 2009. Although approved by Senate Judiciary Committee on December 1, 2010, the Senate failed to act on the nomination. Obama renominated Graves in January 2011, and the Senate confirmed him on February 14, 2011, making him the second African-American judge on the Fifth Circuit, after Carl E. Stewart of Louisiana. He received his commission on February 15, 2011.

Teaching experience

Graves has served as a Teaching Team Member of the Trial Advocacy Workshop at Harvard Law School since 1998. He has also held the position of adjunct professor at Millsaps College, Tougaloo College, and Jackson State University. Graves has taught courses in media law, civil rights law, and sociology of law and is jurist-in-residence at Syracuse University School of Law. Graves has also coached high school, college, and law school mock trial teams, including the Jackson Murrah High School mock trial team that won the 2001 state championship.

Honors and awards

National Conference of Black Lawyers Judge of the Year Award – 1992
National Bar Association Distinguished Jurist Award – 1996
Hinds County Bar Association Innovation Award – 2000
Jackson Public School District Parent of the Year Award – 2001
State of Mississippi Parent of the Year Award, First Alternate – 2001
United States Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner’s Award – 2001
Mississippi Association of Educators Humanized Education Award – 2002
Millsaps College Livesay Award – 2004
NAACP Mississippi Chapter Legal Award – 2004
Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs Public Administration Award – 2009 2

Quote for James Graves Jr.

“A hog in a silk waistcoat is still a hog.”3

Responses of James E. Graves, Jr. Nominee to be United States Circuit Judge for the Fifth Circuit to the Written Questions of Senator Jeff Sessions (PDF)

Responding to a question from Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., Graves explained that he joined a dissenting opinion in a capital murder case for reasons related only to claims by the defendant, Anthony Doss, that his attorneys had been ineffective and that he was mentally retarded.

“I take responsibility for joining that opinion, but I have not now nor have I ever subscribed to any point of view that the death penalty was unconstitutional,” Graves told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “The United States Supreme Court has determined that the death penalty does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment. I would follow the law as handed down by the United States Supreme Court.”4


James E. Graves Jr.,  is a Seventh-day Adventist and is active in his church in Jackson.

Yet, it is Psalm 75:6 and 7 that keep Justice Graves grounded: “For promotion cometh neither from the east, nor from the west, nor from the south. But God is the judge: he putteth down one, and setteth up another (KJV).”

What case or cases have had the most impact on you?

Criminal cases. Sentencing decisions were the most difficult decisions that I had to make as a trial judge. When you can give someone anywhere from zero to 30 years for the sale of cocaine, for example, you literally hold that person’s liberty in your hands. That’s major decision-making power, and it’s one that I never took lightly.

How do you balance your religious beliefs with your responsibilities as a Supreme Court justice?

I don’t see the two as being in conflict, and I don’t see the two as a situation where I have to participate in one to the exclusion of the other. I can’t imagine doing one without the other. The religion is always there: you want to be fair, you want to do the right thing, and you want to look at what is just and morally correct. That’s the prayer I pray every day—to make the right ruling for the right reason. I don’t separate the two.

Do you find opportunities for witnessing about Jesus?

All the time. It’s not so much through the profession; it’s the ancillary opportunities that are presented because I do what I do. There are tons of opportunities to do witnessing and to talk about my religious beliefs and my belief in Christ and how that influences what I do. I let people know that the 10 years I was a trial judge, I never walked into that courtroom without getting on my knees and praying first.5


  1. obamawhitehouse.archives.gov
  2. Wikipedia
  3. austinchronicle.com
  4. prodpquotes.info
  5. dialogue.adventist.org