William Henry Barbour Jr. has served as a US District Court judge for the Southern District of Mississippi since 1983. He was born in Yazoo City on 4 February 1941 and received a bachelor’s degree from Princeton University in 1963 and a law degree from the University of Mississippi School of Law in 1966. Barbour also studied at the New York University School of Law. He practiced with the Yazoo City law firm of Henry, Barbour, and DeCell until 1983; in addition, he held the position of youth counselor at the Yazoo City Court from 1971 to 1982. On 15 March 1983 Pres. Ronald Reagan named Barbour to succeed William H. Cox as a US district judge. Barbour served as chief judge from 1989 to 1996 and assumed senior status in 2006.
One of Barbour’s most notable rulings occurred in Chrissy F. v. Mississippi Department of Public Welfare (1991), which involved a chancery court that had granted custody of a six-year-old girl to her father even though he had been accused of sexually abusing her. Barbour ruled that both the chancery judge and the youth court referee had violated the girl’s constitutional rights of access to courts as well as her procedural due process rights. Children’s rights activists welcomed the decision because of its potential to increase federal courts’ protection of children. The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed Judge Barbour’s ruling on the ground of lack of subject matter jurisdiction but affirmed the decision in all other respects.
In another well-known case, 1998’s ACLU v. Fordice, Barbour ordered Mississippi to unseal the files of the defunct State Sovereignty Commission, a state agency created in 1956 to maintain racial segregation. The Mississippi legislature had officially dissolved the commission in 1977 but had also sealed the agency’s files until 2027. When the American Civil Liberties Union challenged that provision, Barbour held that the files should be unsealed but that interested parties named in the files had privacy rights that had to be protected. Barbour allowed affected persons time to protect their privacy rights before requiring the state to open the files.
In 2003 Barbour presided over United States v. Avants, which involved the 1966 slaying of sixty-seven-year-old black sharecropper Ben Chester White. Prosecutors argued that Ernest Avants and two other Klansmen had killed White to lure the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Natchez, where they intended to assassinate the civil rights leader. Avants was convicted of aiding and abetting a premeditated murder thirty-seven years earlier and died in prison in 2004.
- Almanac of the Federal Judiciary, vol. 1 (2008)
- Rick Bragg, New York Times (26 January 2003)
- Jonathan M. Moses, Wall Street Journal (10 December 1991)
- The American Bench: Judges of the Nation (18th ed., 2008)