With no Democrat appearing on the Nov. 6 general election ballot, Mobile County’s newest district judge will be decided by the July 17 GOP runoff between attorneys George Zoghby and Spiro Cheriogotis.
In the June primary election, Zoghby claimed 47 percent of the total ballots cast — just four points away from avoiding a runoff with Cheriogotis, who managed to collect 40 percent of vote. City prosecutor Derrick Williams didn’t make the runoff but has since endorsed Zoghby.
Zoghby is a Mobile native with 25 years’ experience in civil law practice in state and federal courts across Alabama. He’s also the son of late Mobile County Circuit Judge Michael E. Zoghby.
Cheriogotis has focused primarily on criminal law during the six years he’s been a licensed attorney, both in private practice and as a former state prosecutor under Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich, who officially endorsed his campaign last week.
Like most judicial hopefuls, Zoghby and Cheriogotis both say they’ll be tough on crime and uphold the law. But no matter who wins, Mobile County’s next district judge will join a circuit that’s already working under significant funding challenges and facing further layoffs this fall.
“If the citizens of Mobile County aren’t scared cuts like this are coming to the court system, they should be,” Cheriogotis said. “That’s why I think, in this race, in particular, it’s so important that we get somebody with actual district court experience. Whoever is elected, if they aren’t prepared to do the job on day one, mistakes will be made and justice will suffer.”
Those impending cuts were initiated at the state level and hit Mobile at the end of September despite the efforts of Presiding Judge John Lockett to secure the funding that would help retain a number of support staff positions to help manage one of Alabama’s busiest judicial circuits.
Local courts have already reduced operating hours and the number of weeks set aside for jury trials, and with further staff reductions just around the corner, Cheriogotis said an incoming district judge should expect to have no clerks in their courtroom and only one judicial assistant.
Having handled more than 15,000 criminal cases as a prosecutor and private attorney, Cheriogotis says his experience makes him “the most qualified candidate” for the position and notes Zoghby’s limited experience with criminal law.
“If you’re not making very intentional decisions from a position of experience, you’re going to make mistakes and those mistakes permanently affect lives,” he said. “You can make a decision in one minute that may cost someone their job, or to lose their kids because they can’t get out of jail, and you’ve got to balance those interests with protecting the public.”
If elected, Cheriogotis said he plans to crack down on the “small number of bad actors” he says are responsible for the vast majority of criminal activity in Mobile. He also said “the right to a bond may be in our constitution, but it’s a right that can be waived” in the name of public safety.
Cheriogotis said he wants to use the most restrictive bonding procedures the law allows when dealing with violent offenders and career criminals, and specifically said he’d like to see Mobile’s municipal and district courts “readdress” some of their current automatic bond schedules.
Those preset schedules, he said, can allow defendants charged with violent crimes such as assault to walk out of jail for a just few thousand dollars. Depending on the bonding company, he said that bond may only cost an accused criminal as little as $100.
“That’s why I think it’s important to use more restrictive bonding procedures, not only when it comes to the amount but also requiring a cash component or house arrest,” he said. “There are other things we can order to put greater restrictions on those who are out on bond.”
While Zoghby may not have much criminal law experience, he noted he has 20 years’ more total experience than his opponent because of their ages. He also said a civil law background isn’t at all uncommon among the district and circuit judges on the bench today.
“Something like 11 out of the 16 current judges have a similar background to mine, and they all do an outstanding job,” he said. “I’ve been litigating and trying cases for 25 years, and you don’t have to be a prosecutor to know right from wrong or just from unjust.”
Zoghby has practiced law in local courts and all the way up to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in federal court, and has even been admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court.
Throughout his career, Zoghby said he was fortunate enough to represent law enforcement officers in a number of cases, adding “I don’t represent criminals.” A good chunk of Zoghby’s campaign has also focused on “repeat offenders,” who routinely bounce from jail to the streets.
“The crime rate here in Mobile is much higher than other cities comparable to its size,” he said. “I’ve been told 80 percent of the crime is committed by the 10 percent of the population. What’s that tell you? They’re getting out. We don’t need these repeat offenders.”
Like Cheriogotis, Zoghby said the funding for local courts is in a “sad” state currently. A handful of crucial assistant positions have been funded over the past year by an allocation from the Mobile County Commission. Even though he said “cities and counties” should help with funding shortfalls in May, Zoghby said last week that state courts are a state responsibility.
“It’s our Legislature’s job,” he added.
Zoghby has made violent crime a focus of his campaign, but in addition to locking up “those who are a danger to society” if elected, he said he wants to use his position to “save those that need saving,” too — something he says he watched his father do from the bench growing up.
“I saw the impact he made in people’s lives. I saw him save lives, and I saw him put people’s lives away for acts they had committed,” Zoghby said. “District court, for a lot of people, is the first and only court they see. They need a judge who’ll listen to them and rule according to the law.”