Although African-Americans represent more than a third of Mobile County’s population and 53 percent of inmates booked into the Mobile County Metro Jail in the first six months of 2015, there are currently no black judges at either the district or circuit court levels in the county.
Of the 17 judges currently on both courts, there are 14 white men and three white women, lending to a lack of diversity and a possible issue of fairness for defendants of color, State Rep. Barbara Drummond (D-Mobile) said.
“It’s more than a race issue,” she said. “Mobile County is the second-largest county in the state and there is no African-American representation among judges. It speaks volumes of who we are in our community. I think it ought to be fair.”
Retired Mobile County Circuit Court Judge Rusty Johnston offered, “It is a problem in that the leadership of the black community thinks it’s a problem,” adding that in his experience, the perception is minorities are treated fairly by judges in civil court, but criminal judges may be biased by socio-economic differences, compounded by a persistent majority of black defendants in criminal court.
“There’s a bias there, like there is all over the country,” he said.
When there is a vacancy on the bench, candidates are nominated from a pool of qualified admitted attorneys by the Mobile County Judicial Commission, a committee comprising the presiding judge, two attorneys selected from the Mobile Bar Association and two community members selected by Mobile’s legislative delegation. A list of three nominees is sent to the governor, who has the discretion to choose an appointee.
Currently, Judge Charles Graddick serves as the Commission’s chairman. Recently, Judge Jay York was among the three names sent to Bentley to succeed Johnston in circuit court. Bentley selected York for the position.
Following that, the Commission nominated three attorneys to fill York’s district court seat. Among them was Jill Phillips, a white female assistant district attorney, and Derrick Williams, an African-American male city prosecutor. Bentley selected Phillips for the position.
Oliver Washington III, a member of the selection committee for both nominations, said the process is fair. He said the Commission only got one black applicant for the circuit court position eventually awarded to York and they nominated a black candidate for the district court appointment.
“I think that’s all the Commission can do,” he said. “Make sure the process is fair and that minorities are represented. So far the process, from my perspective, has been fair. Everyone has been given an equal opportunity.”
Judson Wells, a retired judge and current secretary of the Judicial Commission, said there was “a lot of diversity in the top three” candidates sent to the governor for the selection of the newest district judge, noting the names are sent in alphabetical order and no party affiliations are listed.
Johnston suggested more turnover on the commission might lead to more diversity on the bench.
But Graddick defended the selection process, saying that getting qualified candidates for judgeships can also be difficult because in many cases the job requires the appointee to take a pay cut. Many successful attorneys, he said, make more than the $118,500 or $119,000 salary for district and circuit judgeships, respectively.
“You have to want to be a judge, or have the financial security to do it,” he said. “Lawyers have financial obligations and families and many can’t afford the pay cut. It limits the number of people for the job.”
Another issue with recruitment of black candidates, Graddick said, is the political makeup of the county and the requirement that in order to retain their seats after appointment, judges run on party tickets. He said some black candidates may not apply out of fear they’d lose an election as a Democrat, since the majority of registered voters in the county are Republican.
If judicial elections could be nonpartisan, Graddick said, more candidates might apply in the future. Drummond agreed, saying a non-partisan election for judges would be more fair.
Circuit Court Judge John Lockett, president of the Alabama Association of Circuit Judges, cited a poll suggesting a majority of circuit judges favor nonpartisan elections.
“I think that would work very well,” he said. “I think that would be helpful. It would be a good start.”
Ronald Ali, president of the Mobile Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said allowing judges to run in districts, instead of countywide, might also be a solution to make the selection process more equitable for minority candidates.
But Drummond, Graddick and Lockett disagreed with Ali’s approach. Graddick said, for example, in a civil case involving a plaintiff and defendant from different areas of the county, a judge elected in a certain district could be shown to favor the person in his or her district over the person not in the district.
Lockett agreed, saying there are “practical problems” in having judges run in districts because they “are not supposed to be representatives like you get in the legislature.”
“It could create the appearance of siding with someone you represent,” he said.
There is also an absence of black judges in Baldwin County, which was 9.4 percent African-American in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Meanwhile, a similar conversation has stewed at the federal level, where Alabama currently has four vacancies in U.S. District Courts. President Barack Obama is obligated to make those appointments, based on recommendations from the state’s two white Republican senators.
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