Backed by a keen sense of justice, Mary Libby Payne set out to become a voice for the voiceless. She became a lawyer in 1955, and quickly worked her way up the chain. Over the years, she held positions like secretary with Guaranty Title Co., partner with Bickerstaff & Bickerstaff, associate of Henley, Jones, & Henley, Jackson, solo practitioner, executive director of the Mississippi Judiciary Commission, chief of drafting and research for the Mississippi House of Representatives, and assistant attorney general in the State Attorney General Office. Judge Payne broke into academia in 1975, when she became the founding dean and associate professor in the School of Law at Mississippi College. She decided that she liked using her experience to help the younger generations, and, in 1978, she was promoted to professor of the school. Judge Payne remained in that role until 1994, and served as the scholar in residence and professor emerita from 2003 to 2012. She briefly left academia to become a judge for the Mississippi Court of Appeals between 1995 and 2001.
Judge Payne initially became involved in her profession because of her father, a lawyer and legislator. He always used to take the family when he had dinner with foreign dignitaries, and she loved the conversation. With the help of Dr. Chester Swor, a traveling dispenser of the gospel, and her faith in God, she decided to follow in her father’s footsteps. She completed coursework at the Mississippi University for Women between 1950 and 1952, and earned a Bachelor of Arts in political science and an LLB from the University of Mississippi in 1954 and 1955, respectively. She was admitted to practice in the state of Mississippi in 1955, and became a fellow of the American Bar Association.
As a testament to her efforts, Judge Payne was inducted into the Christian Legal Society Hall of Fame and the University of Mississippi Law Alumni Hall of Fame in 2015, and was named Judicial Woman of the Year by the Mississippi Commission on the Status of Women in 2013. She was also honored with the Woman Trailblazer Award by the Women in the Procession Committee of the Mississippi Bar in 2012, the Mississippi Medal of Service from the Governor of Mississippi in 2011, the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Mississippi Women Lawyers Association in 2010, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Mississippi Bar in 2005, and the Distinguished Jurist Award from Mississippi State University in 2004. Other notable accolades include the Lifetime Achievement Award and the Skeeter Ellis Service to Law Students Award from the Christian Legal Society, the Susie Blue Buchanan Award from the Mississippi Bar, the Outstanding Woman Lawyer Award from the Mississippi Women Lawyers Association, and the Power of One Award from the Mississippi Governors Conference.
In Judge Payne’s spare time, she enjoys traveling, public speaking, sewing, needlepoint, reading, writing, and history. She has contributed numerous articles and World War II essays to professional journals, and authored, “A Goodly Heritage: A Memoir of Mississippi College, School of Law” in 2011.