While the trend against Mobile County judges facing opposition continues during a presidential election year, the state’s other large counties are seeing an influx of judicial challengers.
Mobile County has just one contested race — for an open seat — among the six seats up for grabs in the circuit and district courts. The race between Republicans James Patterson and Allen Ritchie for Presiding Circuit Court Judge Charles Graddick’s seat will be decided in the March 1 primary.
Even though he has aged out of ballot eligibility, Graddick has said he’d like to continue to preside over trials by appointment. Mobile County currently has the largest shortfall of judges in the state based on a weighted caseload study, Administrative Office of Courts spokesman Scott Hoyem has previously noted. Graddick did not return a call seeking comment for this story.
Incumbent judges facing no opposition are Circuit Judges Sarah Stewart and Jay York (who is running for the first time since being appointed last year to fill the unexpired term of retired Judge Rusty Johnston), and District Judges George Hardesty, George Brown and Jill Phillips (who is running for the first time since being appointed to York’s seat).
In contrast Jefferson County, Alabama’s largest, will have eight contested races featuring incumbent judges in either primary or general elections this year, six contested races without an incumbent and five races where the incumbent is uncontested in both the circuit and district courts.
Jefferson County Presiding Circuit Judge Joe Boohaker said seasoned incumbents facing this much opposition in an election year is unusual but not unheard of. He credited the presidential election for bringing out more opposition than normal.
“Some think it’s best to run in a presidential year,” Boohaker said. “With the higher turnout they see a better chance.”
Like Mobile, Jefferson County also relies upon a judicial nominating committee to help with the appointment of judges to seats left vacant by incumbents. Boohaker said appointees “rarely run completely unopposed” in their first election.
“If you get appointed, you have to earn it,” he said.
Unlike Mobile, Jefferson County has a Birmingham division and a Bessemer division for judicial seats. During the primary, candidates are chosen by district, but then voted on countywide during the general election, said Alexandria Stevens with the Jefferson County Probate Court elections office. Mobile County’s judicial elections are countywide.
Montgomery County will have two contested elections this term in circuit court, both featuring incumbents, Presiding Judge Gene Reese said. For the county, it’s normally a “mixed bag” as far as whether incumbents see challenges.
“It’s hard to figure out who draws opposition,” he said. “Sometimes you can point to certain things and sometimes you can’t.”
Unlike Mobile or Jefferson, Montgomery County doesn’t have a nominating committee. In the event of an unexpired vacancy, the governor appoints judges in the county.
“Elections can oftentimes filter out bad choices … ” Reese said. “Elections level the playing field, so to speak.”
Montgomery County judges run countywide.
In Mobile County, Circuit Judge Walter Honeycutt was recently appointed to fill the unexpired term of retired Judge Donald Banks. According to Amendment 408, which established Mobile County’s nominating commission, any judge appointed at least six months before a general election must run in that election. Since Honeycutt was appointed in February, he missed the November deadline for candidates to qualify for the March 1 primary, which would normally restrict him from ballot access in the general election.
Although the situation created some confusion, Honeycutt said the Alabama Republican Party nominated him and he will be placed on the ballot with no opposition.
In an emailed statement Alabama Republican Party Chairwoman Terry Lathan confirmed Honeycutt would be the nominee.
“Although our qualifying dates had passed, the law permits the party to fill gaps when quick action is needed,” Lathan wrote. “All applicants were given the opportunity to apply. Any interested candidate had equal access to participate through the process.”
Lathan also noted there were “several candidates” who applied for the nomination for the appointment. She called Honeycutt’s situation a “rare occurrence.”
A call to the office of the Alabama Democratic Party was not returned. It is unclear whether the Democrats will nominate someone to run against Honeycutt, or whether they even can.
Honeycutt will run again in 2018, which is the year Banks’ current term expires. Honeycutt said Banks got an Attorney General’s opinion on the situation before he retired.
Mike Lewis, communications director for Attorney General Luther Strange, said the opinion on file most closely representing what they’re asking for was written by Bill Pryor on Feb. 12, 1997. It basically states that the Secretary of State has the authority to interpret election law.