A powerful and often overlooked group of decisionmakers could have a whole new look this year after three spots are filled.
Mobile County’s local legislative delegation and judges will need to appoint three new members to the local Judicial Nominating Committee, a group tasked with choosing judges to nominate for gubernatorial appointment to fill unexpired terms. The other two members of the five-member nominating commission come from the county’s legal community and are appointed by the Mobile Bar Association.
While the nominating commission has allowed for more local control over who becomes a judge rather than leaving it solely up to the governor, the group’s selections have sometimes been criticized for cronyism or viewed as not being diverse enough.
Terms on the commission are staggered, meaning only one and sometimes two appointments are necessary each year, but the current vacancies are the result of the recent retirement of Judge Charlie Graddick, former chairman of the commission; the death of member Oliver Washington; and the expiration of Jamie Ison’s term, which she filled upon Chris Pringle’s election to the Alabama House in 2014.
“Jamie took the seat I had,” Pringle said. “She put me on it, so to get her back I put her on it.”
The local legislative delegation, made up of state representatives and senators from Mobile County, will decide which non-attorneys will fill Washington’s and Ison’s seats.
State Rep. David Sessions, Republican of Mobile, who is chairman of the delegation, said the group is currently looking at resumes and has a few names in mind. Sessions said state Sen. Vivian Figures, a Mobile Democrat, has submitted Delores Bagsby’s name for consideration, while State Sen. Bill Hightower has nominated Pete Riehm. However, Hightower said there were several other candidates the delegation was considering to fill a “pretty important position.”
Sessions said the delegation had “good nominees” to consider. Figures did not return a call seeking comment on her possible pick.
Before replacing those members in question, Sessions said the delegation is waiting for an attorney general’s opinion on whether Ison can serve again. Since she filled Pringle’s unexpired term, there is a question of whether she can succeed herself. The local amendment creating the commission states a member can’t succeed themself on the board, but the delegation needs to know from the attorney general’s office if that applies to someone like Ison who filled an unexpired term.
A similar situation happened when Graddick filled the unexpired term of Judge Herman Thomas and that term expired. Graddick was chosen to serve again, his first full term on the commission.
Sessions said based on his interpretation of the law, letting Ison serve her first full term would be “totally legal.”
Hightower said waiting for the attorney general’s opinion is vastly important, given that a bad interpretation of the law could mean a judge’s ruling could be thrown out years from now.
“We don’t want to jeopardize the court cases of judicial nominees,” he said. “We’ve put everything on hold until we hear from the attorney general’s office. When we saw uncertainty we said, ‘we have to put it on hold.’”
Even though they’re waiting on the opinion, members of the delegation said they believe a decision on the new commission members would be made by the end of the session.
Judge John Lockett, presiding Mobile County circuit judge, said the judges haven’t gotten together to replace Graddick as the chairman of the commission but would soon — although, he added, they aren’t rushing a decision because there are currently no open judicial seats.
With more than half the commission seats vacant, this may be a clear opportunity for those with appointing authority to make a difference. The opportunity is not lost on state Rep. Barbara Drummond, Democrat of Mobile, who has called for more diversity on the county bench.
“I’m hoping we’ll try to make the commission as diverse as possible to reflect the community,” Drummond said. “We’re looking at it very closely.”
Drummond said it does not make Mobile look good when the judges on the bench don’t represent the community.
While there is no immediate vacancy among the judges that needs to be filled by the governor, a few of the county’s circuit and district judges will not be eligible for re-election based on age. District judges Bob Sherling and Joe Basenberg, as well as circuit judges Roderick Stout and Robert Smith, are all at least 70 years old, according to the county court website. This means each of them will be unable to run for re-election because of age. The terms of Smith, Stout and Sherling expire in 2018. Basenberg’s term expires in 2021.
If one or more of those judges retires before his term expires, it would be up to the commission to suggest candidates to replace those seats. Many Mobile County judges have, in the past, retired before their terms expired. This has allowed the nominating committee to hand-pick successors to the bench. Many of those choices have historically run unopposed, even though a local amendment requires they run in the very next election.