Lamar relishes leaving Supreme Court for family in Senatobia

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MSSC Justice Ann H. Lamar

Mississippi Today

Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Ann Lamar in her Jackson office

Justice Ann Hannaford Lamar’s grandchildren may enjoy having her with them more often when her  retirement from the Mississippi Supreme Court begins in 2017.

“You’re always going to Jackson, Pu’,” her Number 2 grandson observed while she was at home in Senatobia, Lamar said. The children’s name for her is Puddin’.

Lamar, 63, made her departure decision last fall but waited to announce it in mid-January after colleagues David Chandler and Randy Pierce revealed in December 2015 that they planned to leave the state’s highest court in quick order for other opportunities.

“I wanted to finish this term,” her community’s 2010 Citizen of the Year said. “When I finish, it will be nearly 10 years.”

Lamar is the third woman to serve on the Mississippi Supreme Court, succeeding justices Lenore Prather of Columbus and Kay Cobb of Oxford.

With Pierce’s departure, Chancellor Dawn Beam of Sumrall joins Lamar for an unusual moment for the court with two females on the bench at the same time.

“I’m excited about that,” she said of Beam’s arrival Feb. 1, admitting she had “given up” the idea of having a female colleague, “although I thought maybe one might succeed me.”

Lamar spoke frankly about her time at the court, the difficulties associated with commuting weekly from her Tate County home and the challenges of balancing family demands with the work she was elected to do in 2008 after a brief appointment period following the 2007 retirement of Justice Cobb.

She describes her court experience as “demanding and incredibly fulfilling.”

Quite the journey

Lamar admits it has been an interesting personal and professional progression since early on she insisted she had no intentions of following in the footsteps of her father, Chancery Judge Leon Hannaford.

She and high-school sweetheart John Lamar, whom she calls “Johnny,” married at 19. He aimed for law school. She got her degree in home economics and nutrition at Delta State University in 1974.

When they moved back home to Senatobia in 1977, she said her two job choices were serving as a Tate County Schools food specialist or augmenting a district court reporters corps strapped with additional duties brought about by a massive DeSoto County annexation case.

She chose the courtroom.

In two years, Lamar said, she watched attorneys at their craft and told herself, “I could do that.”

She entered the University of Mississippi School of Law and graduated in 1982. She practiced law with the family firm, became a prosecutor, district attorney and then a circuit judge. So much for rejecting those fatherly footsteps.

Her combined experiences have forged her advocacy for the expansion of county drug courts and youth courts, as well as improved funding for public defense for people who can’t afford an attorney to resolve non-criminal situations, such as divorce and landlord issues.

Changes on the Court

With the late 2015 court departures, two new justices were appointed by the Governor’s Office: Beam and Jimmy Maxwell of Oxford from the Mississippi Court of Appeals.

Will the court change with the newcomers?

“We’ll see,” Lamar said. “A change in justices does somehow change the dynamic of the discussion.”

Mississippi Supreme Court, 2016: Front, from left, Justices Jess Dickinson, Chief William Waller Jr., Michael Randolph; back, Justices Dawn Beam, Josiah Coleman, Jim Kitchens, Ann Lamar, Leslie King, Jimmy Maxwell

Mississippi Supreme Court

Mississippi Supreme Court, 2016: Front, from left, Justices Jess Dickinson, Chief William Waller Jr., Michael Randolph; back, Justices Dawn Beam, Josiah Coleman, Jim Kitchens, Ann Lamar, Leslie King, Jimmy Maxwell

She described the current nine-justice Supreme Court as being “in a good place … a much more congenial court since I first came on.

“I have respect for my fellow judges. We can have a healthy discussion … without deteriorating into something personal.”

The court’s nine justices are elected three each from North, Central and South geographic districts for staggered eight-year terms.

The court’s work, as the state’s highest court of appeals, generally isn’t understood by the public, she says with a bit of regret in her voice.

“I don’t know that I represent these people,” says Lamar about the voters who sent her to Jackson from the Northern District. “We hear cases from all over the state. All we can do is do our job fairly.

“We interpret the law,” not consider popular opinion about cases or issues, she insisted.

Being a role model

Lamar says she often gets invited to speak to women’s organizations, especially to young female attorneys. At a Women’s Bar conference in Tupelo earlier this spring, she told her audience that preparation and civility are important issues for successful lawyers.

“We are in the business of resolving disputes,” Lamar reminded her listeners. “It’s not part of the job to be disagreeable. Jurors pick up on that.”

Being the best prepared person in the room is the best way to dispel nervousness, she advised.

“Nothing breeds confidence better than preparation.”

Earlier, she said she often encourages female attorneys and law students with lessons she has learned in life.

“I tell them, ‘You can have it all,’ but maybe not all the time,” Lamar said. “There are seasons of your life … when opportunities come along. Just keep your priorities in order.”

Finishing a big project

Summer 2016 marks the likely completion of the final draft of a massive criminal court rules change Lamar says has been needed for decades – one set of rules that apply from the lowliest justice court through municipal and circuit courts from the start of a case through post-trial.

“We’re hoping by summer to have a final draft for public comment,” said Lamar, as chairman of the court’s Criminal Rules Committee.

Finally, the state’s court system and the public will have one place to go to understand what to expect in criminal proceedings and those courts will have clear standards by which cases will be handled.

What does retirement look like when she removes the black robe for good?

“I don’t know,” Lamar admitted. “Maybe like Scarlett (O’Hara) says, I’ll think about that tomorrow.

“I just know I’m not coming to Jackson every week and maybe enjoying things I haven’t been able to do” like teaching law classes or joining the ranks as a senior status justice, which will make her available to consider cases periodically. It’s unlikely she’ll return to practicing law, she said.

While she makes that 2 ¼ hour trip each way, she finds diversion in the web-book apps like Audible. She has caught up on numerous books including To Kill a Mockingbird, which she missed reading years ago. Another is Natchez author Greg Iles’ latest, The Bone Tree.

“I’ve had lots of time in the car,” she said of the weekly drives up and down Interstate 55. “Time to think and catch my breath.”

Lamar admits that her family life now “revolves around those three grandbabies” and her husband, John, who continues in remission from Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, a form of cancer. Those kids call him Pops.

Perhaps some foreign or domestic travel is ahead for them, she says.

As for planning retirement?

“I haven’t exactly planned my life,” Lamar notes. “Things have just kind of come up. It’s gone pretty well.

“I’ll see what God’s got in mind next.”