JANS – Senior Status Judge Betty W. Sanders of Greenwood is the recipient of the 2023 Chief Justice Award.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike Randolph presented the award on Thursday, July 20, at the Mississippi Bar Convention in Biloxi. The annual award recognizes individuals whose actions significantly impact the law, the administration of justice, and the people of the state of Mississippi.
Introducing Judge Sanders as the award honoree, Chief Justice Randolph called her “one of the hardest working judges in the state.”
After serving for 20 years as a circuit judge in the Mississippi Delta, she retired from office in 2014, but continued to hear cases by appointment as a senior status judge. And when COVID struck, she was among the veteran judges who were appointed to help relieve the court docket backlog. Judge Sanders was one of four special circuit judges appointed on August 4, 2020, to assist the Hinds Circuit Court. She continued hearing cases in Hinds Circuit Court through January 2023, resolving 182 post-conviction relief petitions and 132 criminal cases.
Chief Justice Randolph also praised Judge Sanders for her work supervising a drug intervention court. She established a drug court for the 4th Circuit of Leflore, Sunflower, and Washington counties in June 2002. At that time, only two other drug courts were operating in the state.
Chief Justice Randolph said that Judge Sanders took a personal interest in the well-being of all drug court participants. “She realized when she was getting these people in to deal with that they didn’t have much food. They didn’t have much clothing… She starts a food bank for them and brings clothes in.”
Judge Sanders was an educator before she pursued a career in law. She graduated from Alcorn State University in 1966 with a Bachelor of Science degree in business education. She earned a Master’s of Business Education degree in 1971 from Bowling Green State University in Ohio. She pursued course work toward a specialist degree in business education from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. She taught business at Coahoma Junior College, then at Mississippi Valley State University. After she finished law school, she taught business law and court systems at MVSU for nearly 20 years.
Judge Sanders’ children and grandchildren accompanied her at the award presentation. Chief Justice Randolph noted that Judge Sanders’ family are all legal and medical professionals. Her late husband Alix H. Sanders Sr. was a trailblazing attorney. Their children are attorney Neysha Sanders, Dr. Nikka Sanders Johnson, an OB-GYN, and dentist Alix Sanders Jr.
Judge Sanders’ first work in the legal profession was with the Legal Services office in Oxford while she was a student at the University of Mississippi School of Law. She became a staff attorney in the Greenwood office of North Mississippi Rural Legal Services after finishing law school, and worked there 1979 to 1981.
Continuing her work to assist low-income people after she left the bench, she joined the Board of Directors of North Mississippi Rural Legal Services in January 2021. She is in her second three-year term.
“Judge Sanders has provided exemplary service to the board by providing thoughtful leadership, brilliant advice and counsel, and superior guidance in the tradition of her judicial temperament of excellence,” said Ben Cole II, executive director of North Mississippi Rural Legal Services. “Judge Sanders is truly an asset to NMRLS and its client community.”
Cole noted that Judge Sanders continues the work of her late husband, Alix Sanders, who previously served as executive director of North Mississippi Rural Legal Services.
Judge Sanders also served for more than 20 years as a member of the Board of Directors of the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project and its predecessor, the Pro Bono Project of the Mississippi Bar. She was honored with the Pro Bono Publico Award for her many hours of pro bono service.
She joined her husband’s law firm in Greenwood in 1981. She was the first African American attorney to serve as co-counsel to the Greenwood Public School District. She worked in the general practice firm until 1989, when she was appointed as a magistrate to hear cases filed by prisoners at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. She served as a magistrate 1989-1994. She was the first African American elected to Subdistrict 3 of the 4th Circuit Court in 1994.
She has been a leader of the bench and bar. She is former chair, vice-chair, and secretary-treasurer of the Conference of Circuit Judges and was on the Conference’s Legislative Committee. She served on the Commission on Judicial Performance, the Complaint Tribunal and Ethics Committee of the Mississippi Bar, and as secretary of the Magnolia Bar Association. She served as a faculty facilitator at the National Judicial College in Reno, Nevada. She also served on the Mississippi Model Jury Instructions Commission.
She currently serves as attorney for the Leflore County Board of Supervisors, a job she has held since January 2023.
She is a member of the American Bar Association, the National Bar Association, American Trial Lawyers Association, National Association of Women Judges, Mississippi Bar, Magnolia Bar Association, and the Leflore County Bar Association. She served on the ABA National Conference of State Trial Judges, the National Association of Women Judges Racial and Cultural Diversity Committee, and on the Governmental Affairs and Education Committees of the Leflore County Chamber of Commerce. She serves on the Life Help Advisory Council and the Quality Mental Health Committee.
Judge Sanders has received special recognition from the Judicial Division of the American Bar Association. She was the recipient of the Magnolia Bar Association Government Service Awards in 1997 and 2003. She was inducted as a Fellow of the Mississippi Bar Foundation in 2006. The Mississippi House of Representatives honored her with a resolution commending her career in 2015.