During a public debate at Dublin Irish Pub & Eatery last week, the three attorneys vying to replace retiring Mobile County District Judge Bob Sherling each gave their take on several issues facing the local judicial system.
With no Democratic challengers in the general election, the June 5 GOP primary between Spiro Cheriogotis, Derrick Williams and George Zoghby is a winner-take-all scenario.
Cheriogotis previously worked as a prosecutor in the Mobile County District Attorney’s office, and Williams has had a similar role as a prosecutor for the city of Mobile. Zoghby, whose father was a circuit court judge, has been in private practice for 24 years.
While many topics were covered, debate moderators asked specific questions about the candidates’ positions on juvenile justice and bonds granted to repeat offenders — something local prosecutors and law enforcement officials have publicly criticized judges for in recent months.
“Teenagers and adults are treated differently under the law. Yet, some commit the same type of crimes,” Zoghby said. “Some may not have the same mental capacity as an adult, but teenagers at a certain age know a crime they’re committing is wrong. They can’t plead innocence to that.”
Like Zoghby, Williams said he’d support expanding the crimes that teenagers can be tried for as adults, noting the recent surge in teenage violence. Cheriogotis didn’t disagree per se, but said such an expansion wouldn’t be necessary given what the law already allows.
“Currently, under the law, the youngest someone can be tried as an adult in Alabama is 14 years old, but there’s no restrictions on which crimes that can be done for,” Cheriogotis said. “That’s something the district attorney’s office can undertake.”
All of the candidates agreed it should not be easy for repeat offenders to bond out of jail, but noted judges are required by law to weigh certain factors when considering whether to issue or revoke bond for an accused criminal.
Cheriogotis said criminals who routinely “create victims” should be given “special attention” by the court, and his opponents agreed. Zoghby also noted that the families of both the victim and the offender are affected when crime occurs.
The candidates also addressed the lack of mental health services in the area and its impact on the local courts and jails.
Williams called the closure of Searcy Hospital in Mt. Vernon “the worst decision in recent memory.” Cheriogotis said “mental health and crime often intersect” but jail isn’t always the best fit for someone suffering from a mental illness. However, he said district judges, specifically, are limited in what they can do for those defendants.
“We don’t even have the authority to order a mental health evaluation because that’s something left up to circuit court,” Cheriogotis said. “We have to streamline how we handle people with mental health issues because the sooner we can get these people into the system, the more likely we are to get a positive result.”
Funding district and circuit courts receive from the state also came up during the debate. As Lagniappe has reported, local courts have been working with smaller staffs for several years, despite managing one of the state’s largest caseloads.
Presiding Judge John Lockett expects layoffs to be inevitable this fall after money the Mobile County Commission provides — which finances more than a dozen support staff positions — dries up. The county doesn’t intend to renew the allocation, but at least two candidates believe it should.
“There were 40,000 cases filed in district court alone, and the men and women in the clerk’s office are working their tails off,” Zoghby said. “I know the court system is a function of the state, but if it would help provide better justice to the people, the city and the county should help.”
Cheriogotis noted Jefferson County and other areas of the state already help subsidize their local court systems. He said by November each judge could only have one support staff member, compared to four just a few years ago.
“Justice will suffer,” he said. “People will remain in jail that are not supposed to be there, and people will be let out of jail that should be there.”
In fact, that exact thing happened last month when a capital murder suspect was mistakenly released from Mobile Metro Jail. District Attorney Ashley Rich’s office blamed the mixup on funding cutbacks in the circuit clerk’s office.
While Williams didn’t say counties and cities should have no role in funding the local court system, he said he believes the state Legislature shouldn’t be let off the hook that easily, either.
“I think it’s a state problem, and I don’t think you should put the burden entirely on cities and towns because, speaking for the city of Mobile, we could say the same thing,” he said. “We’re understaffed, too. We need more clerks, more prosecutors and probably more judges, based on the volume of cases we deal with on an everyday basis.”
The candidates also fielded a question from the audience about racial bias in the court system.
Zoghby said it’s “a judge’s role to make sure everyone is treated equally” regardless of their race or ethnicity. Based on his experience, Cheriogotis said he doesn’t believe the justice system is “rigged against any race.” He said “socioeconomic factors can be far more important.”
Williams, the only African-American in the race, said he would stop short of calling the justice system “rigged” against anyone, but believes there are “certain facets of the criminal justice system that can serve to the disadvantage of people of color.”
“Everyone should be treated fairly regardless, but I think in some systems everyone is not, and that’s a problem we have to deal with,” Williams said. “I think that’s why you need diversity on all levels — to ensure no one is getting set up for failure.”