One of longest-serving jurists on the local bench, Mobile County Circuit Judge John Lockett, has announced plans to retire on May 31.
After more than two decades on the bench in Mobile County, Presiding Circuit Judge John Lockett has announced plans to end his current term early and retire at the end of May.
Lockett, the only remaining Democrat judge in the county, gave notice of his departure last week. He was first appointed as a judge in the 13th Judicial Circuit of Mobile County in 1999 and has served as the presiding circuit judge since his predecessor, Charlie Graddick, stepped down from the post in 2017.
“It will be 20 years and 11 months by the time I retire, and I’ve served with maybe 25 different circuit judges and probably a dozen other district court judges during that time,” Lockett said. “Life moves on, and I think we’ve got some bright young judges at the moment. I believe the circuit is in good shape.”
Lockett was just re-elected in 2018 and will leave office nearly five years before the end of what would have likely been his final term due to age restrictions for judicial candidates under Alabama law. His replacement will be appointed by Gov. Kay Ivey from a group of nominees selected by the Mobile County Judicial Commission in the coming months.
The commission met this week to set its schedule; it plans to accept nominations for Lockett’s seat on the circuit bench between Feb. 21 and March 20. The nominees will be announced in late April, and after a month-long public comment period, three finalists will be submitted for Ivey’s consideration.
The remaining circuit judges on the bench will elect a presiding judge amongst themselves, and Lockett’s departure in May will leave Circuit Judge Ben Brooks as the most senior jurist on the bench.
Lockett said he feels comfortable stepping into retirement now that concerns about funding for the 13th Judicial Circuit seem to have been addressed. He has been in charge the past two years as funding reductions in Montgomery have forced local courts to cut back on staffing and operating hours.
Last May, the Mobile County Commission and the city of Mobile agreed to put a combined $3 million into the local court system over the next three years, even though it’s supposed to be funded by the state. That agreement helped stabilize local courts and prevent a logjam of cases, but it also protected internet sales tax revenue, which some legislators had considered redirecting to fund local courts.
“We seem to have a level of financial stability that should last for the next few years at least,” Lockett told Lagniappe. “I never wanted to leave in a crisis, and it seems like we’ve gotten over that potential funding crisis for now. At least from an administrative view, things are in good shape.”
The shakeup in leadership in the 13th Circuit comes as local courts are also working to restructure the way indigent defense is handled locally. Last summer, Mobile County’s indigent defense advisory committee voted to create the first public defender’s office in the district’s history. The same body selected local attorney Arthur Powell III to head up the office last fall, and he began working to build the office in January.
Lockett openly advocated for the shift to a public defender system and supported it by virtue of his vote on the local advisory committee. He also doesn’t believe support from the bench will waiver after he’s gone.
“I think there’s a commitment from the bench here that this is the direction we want to go in, and I don’t see that changing after I’m gone,” he said. “It wasn’t a determining factor in choosing to leave, but it was gratifying. I thought it was the best thing for the circuit and for the people of Mobile County.”
Originally from Chicago, Lockett built his career in the Yellowhammer State after attending Spring Hill College and law school at The University of Alabama. He’s previously served as an assistant attorney general and general counsel for the Secretary of State’s office and the city of Mobile.
“I could have retired several years ago, but this job really always felt more like a calling to me,” Lockett said. “I’ve got two grandkids, and it’s time to spend some time with them and catch up on all those baseball parks around the country that I’ve never gotten a chance to see because I’ve been working.”
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