Two icons in the Mississippi legal community are no longer with us with the passing this week of Judge Marcus Gordon and famed attorney Gene Tullos of Smith County.

Here is a Jerry Mitchell Clarion-Ledger article on the passing of Judge Gordon. He served as a Circuit Judge for over 36 years. He is best remembered by the general public for presiding in the 2005 murder trial of Edgar Ray Killen for arranging the murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in 1964.

I never tried a case before Judge Gordon, but it sounds like it could be an experience.

Here is an obituary for Gene Tullos. It states that Tullos tried over 500 civil cases and took off only 3 days in a 50 year legal practice. He was known for answering the office phone at night and on weekends.

I first heard about Gene Tullos in Guthrie Abbott’s Mississippi Civil Procedure class in law school in the early 90’s. By that time, Tullos was already a mythical figure in the bar. Professor Abbott explained that Tullos’ “Smith County phenomenon” led to changes in venue laws in Mississippi.

I was intimidated when I first crossed paths with Tullos as a young lawyer. But in the handful of garden-variety cases that I had against him, he was always gracious, professional and extremely reasonable in settlement negotiations. Tullos had you over a barrel in Smith County and everyone knew it. There was a lot of gratitude and respect in the defense bar that he did not charge a settlement premium that an unscrupulous attorney in his position would have.

In most places a person would have trouble finding an attorney to take something like a $15,000 property damage dispute involving a bad roof. Tullos would take the case for a Smith County resident and get it resolved. I can’t over-emphasize how unusual that is for an attorney in Tullos’ league. I guess the most unusual aspect of my dealings with Tullos is that I actually dealt with him on cases that were worth low five figures.

For someone like Tullos, that is essentially a pro bono case. Other prominent attorneys might occasionally take a case like that, but they would let the file rot for years while they worked on their big cases. In my experience, Tullos might file a case and let it sit for a little while, but he was going to get to it. And when he got to it, it was going to be positioned for settlement or trial in a short period.

Forty years from now almost all of us who worked with Gene Tullos will be gone. But there will still be some lawyers who are now 30 around. They will tell the young lawyers of 2056 stories they heard about Gene Tullos. And they will not be believed.

  • I really wish some Ph.D. candidate would do a dissertation on the oral history of Mississippi lawyers and judges. So many stories are being lost every year. It seems vanishingly unlikely the MS Bar would ever fund such a project.

  • Richard

    I’m 35 and have practiced for 5 years. I have heard all of the myths surrounding Gene Tullos, and the subject has always fascinated me. I have also had the pleasure of having several of the small cases you refer to in your post against him. He was always a perfect gentleman and always eminently reasonable. He knew the value of his case, and he never sought to extort the other side, whose insurers were warned about going against him on his home turf. I wish someone would write a book about him. I agree wholeheartedly with everything you wrote and with your final conclusion that lawyers of the future simply won’t believe anything about the unique phenomenon of the anomalous Smith County.

  • Pieter T.

    What, no comments on Judge Gordan? About five years out of law school I tried a products liability case before him. After closing summations, with the jury about to retire for deliberations, Judge Gordan chooses the jury foreman: the odlest, most conservative male on the panel, We lost. On appeal the MSCA, in an uplished opinon, admonished him and all trial judges the it was no longer acceptable for the judge to select the foreperson, but nevertheless affirmed. The MSSC did not accept the petition for writ of cert.

    I have another Judge Gordan story from that trial, but it’s not fit for printing.

    Anyone who practied criminal law before Judge Gordon can tell you about his rocket docket. No 270 day problems with him at the helm.

    • Jane Tucker

      The first time I appeared before him, other attorneys in his courtroom warned me his nickname was “The Ayatollah.”