Siegelman leaves more diverse judicial system

The Birmingham News


News staff writer

One of Gov. Don Siegelman's legacies in Jefferson County may be the way he shaped the judiciary, appointing seven judges in the Birmingham Division in the past 14 months. 
His appointments in that time were all Democrats and
included three females and one black male, choices that help diversify the 32-member bench. 

There are now three female criminal judges, one black
male criminal judge, two female civil judges and a black male on the civil bench (appointed by Siegelman in April 2000). 

"We've not had women on the civil bench before now,"
said recent civil judge appointee Caryl P. Privett.
"That was noted by the Alabama Women's Initiative as
something that was needed and the governor has taken a
giant step in curing that gap. I'm very proud that he
chose me to do that," along with Helen Shores Lee. 

New criminal circuit Judge Laura Petro also noted the
change. "I've always wanted to sit at the big boys table. Thanks to Gov. Don Siegelman, the big boys table has got some girls sitting at it," Petro said during her formal swearing-in ceremony Wednesday. 

Siegelman, who said last week he's tried to inject
diversity into the Birmingham bench, made his
appointments quickly after a number of judges retired
last year for various reasons, including pursuit of
new legal careers, age or a desire to spend more time
with family. Asked if any of the appointees were his
friends, Siegelman said: "If they weren't before I made the appointment, they are now." 

Five of the retired Jefferson County judges have been
on the bench for 20 years or longer, and one of them is 70. Judges 70 and older can still serve out their current term, but cannot seek re-election. 

Some observers say it makes economic sense for judges
to retire, considering their pay and the long, taxing hours that the job carries. 

A Jefferson County circuit judge with 21 years of service, for example, receives a yearly state base pay of $139,968, which also accounts for years of experience, according to Don Nelson, director of benefits for the Judicial Retirement Fund of Alabama. In retirement, that judge will receive $104,976 from the state (75 percent of base pay) and $41,990 from Jefferson County (40 percent of state yearly retirement pay). In the end, a retired judge with 21 years experience will take home $146,966, annually. 

Circuit Judge James Garrett, who retired in December
after 22 years on the bench, said when someone told him he'd make more money in retirement, he didn't take them seriously. 

He said he retired because he'd never taken any time off, and not for the money. "I felt like it was about time" to retire, Garrett said. Even in retirement, Garrett, like several other retired judges, continues to hear cases as a supernumerary judge appointed by the chief justice. 

New appointees serve at least one year and then seek a
seven-year term. 

Siegelman made his judicial selections each time from
a list of three nominees submitted by the five-member
Jefferson County Judicial Commission, made up of two
lawyers, a judge, and two community members. 

"I think it's safe to say there's never been this much
activity in filling this many vacancies probably in the history of the commission," said Ken Simon, a lawyer and commission co-chairman. Before last year, the commission met twice a year or even less. 

Simon said they make selections based on a candidate's
merits, and not political affiliations. "What we do is take input from the members of the bar, from the community at large and ... our personal evaluations of the candidates," Simon said. "With all those things in mind, we try to come up with some persons that we think are the most qualified to fill the position." 

Presiding Judge Scott Vowell said that while he hates
to lose the experience of the retired judges, the recent appointees will bring new ideas. "None of the judges are radical, either pro-defendant or pro-plaintiff," Vowell said. "Everybody up here now is objective and will try to get the right decision in each case." 

The commission will meet again in February to select
nominees to replace 69-year-old District Judge R.O.
Hughes, who retires Jan. 31. Bob Riley, who becomes
governor today, will make the appointment. After Hughes' retirement, Simon predicts things will slow down for the commission. 

"Just based on conversations with judges, they are not
expecting any of their colleagues to retire for at least a couple of years," Simon said. 

Other Siegelman appointees include: Circuit Judge
Houston L. Brown, Circuit Judge Tom King Jr., District
Judge John Lowther, Circuit Judge Clyde Jones and
Circuit Judge Robert S. Vance Jr.