Virgil A. Griffith is one of the best-recognized figures in Mississippi legal history. His Mississippi Chancery Practice was among the most-used books for at least two generations of Mississippi lawyers and is still consulted by many. The first edition was published in 1925. A second and subsequent 1950 edition lasted until the adoption of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure in 1982. He also wrote the survey work Outlines of the Law: A Comprehensive Summary of the Major Subjects of American Law (1949).
Griffith was born in Lawrence County, the son of a planter. He graduated from the University of Mississippi in 1897. He then read law in the office of A. C. McNair in Brookhaven, as was the custom of the times for aspiring young lawyers. Upon admission to the bar, he moved to Harrison County, which remained home for the rest of his life. Griffith practiced law on the Gulf Coast, first with William Lyon Wallace and E. J. Bowers, a former congressman representing Mississippi’s sixth district, in Biloxi, and then with Judge James Neville in Gulfport. In 1920 Griffith was elected chancery judge for the Eighth District. Nine years later he was elevated to the Supreme Court of Mississippi, where he served for twenty years, the last two as chief justice. He died in 1953.
In 1935 the nation took notice when Griffith dissented from the Mississippi Supreme Court’s shocking action in affirming the death sentences of three young African Americans who had been tortured into confessing that they had murdered a white man. In 1938 Griffith authored State v. McPhail, charging that the “the governor shall see that the laws are faithfully executed” —result of an apparent inability of local authorities to enforce the laws regulating gambling and the use of alcoholic beverages in the well-known “Gold Coast” area along the Pearl River. The governor called out the state militia to enforce the law, and Justice Griffith articulated and then affirmed the governor’s authority in these extreme circumstances. Griffith’s McPhail opinion then complemented and cabined this core concern of the governor with a famous “but whenever” clause, explaining that Mississippi still embraces all rights secured by the modern understanding of Magna Carta.
In 1938 Justice Griffith spoke separately in rejecting constitutional challenges to Gov. Hugh White’s signature Balance Agriculture with Industry [BAWI] program, designed to help lift Mississippi out of the Great Depression. Griffith thought the majority opinion too sweeping. Reflecting that he was not immune from the mania of the times, Griffith warned Mississippians against tendencies towards “a communistic or soviet state.”
Recognition of Griffith’s influence in the fields of chancery and equity practice abound. His Mississippi Chancery Practice was once termed the “lawyer’s bible.” While the ordinary practice among appellate judges citing authorities for important propositions merely gives the case citations, a Griffith authority was often thought to carry more weight when the court recited, “the Court, speaking through the renowned, late Justice Virgil A. Griffith.”
Portions of this material originally appeared in James L. Robertson’s Heroes, Rascals, and the Law: Constitutional Encounters in Mississippi History (University Press of Mississippi).
- Robert G. Gillespie, Journal of Mississippi History 37 (1997)
- John Ray Skates Jr., A History of the Mississippi Supreme Court, 1817–1948, 78 (1973)
- James L. Robertson, Heroes, Rascals and the Law: Constitutional Encounters in Mississippi History (2019)