When Alabamians vote in the primaries next week, there’s a lot more on the line than who might be the presidential nominees. Judicial races at the county level arguably have a greater impact on residents’ lives, but receive less attention. In Jefferson County, judicial retirements have cleared the way for a new generation of Judges.
If the sheer number of yard signs translated into buzz, the Jefferson County judicial races would be the most talked about contest this primary season. Drive down any street in Birmingham, and you’re more likely to see the names Bell and Brantley than Trump and Cruz.
That’s because Alabama has partisan judicial elections. At a judicial candidate forum at the Birmingham Public Library earlier this month, candidates touted their qualifications with impressive resumes and clever alliteration.
“It’s more important than most primaries because there are so many candidates,” says Ida Tyree-Hyche, attorney and president of the League of Women Voters of Greater Birmingham, which organized the forum. There are 50 candidates to be exact. That’s 50 people and 11 contested judicial races this primary. Candidates almost outnumber the audience at tonight’s forum, even though it’s a pretty healthy turnout for a Monday.
But Tyree-Hyche says this primary isn’t just about size. “It has the possibility of really diversifying the courts in Jefferson County.”
With several judges retiring, Tyree-Hyche says this election could be completely transformative for the bench, especially with a candidate pool that skews more female, more racially diverse and younger than the county’s current judges.
After the forum, I seek out two of the fresher-faced candidates. They stand out not just because of their ages, but their fierce fashion choices.
“I have on some brown shoes with some candy stripe laces, a suit and a proper tie, otherwise known as a bowtie,” says Charles “Chuck” Price II. He’s running for Circuit Court Judge, Place 4. The woman standing next to him introduces herself as Javon Patton. She’s also running for Circuit Court Judge, Place 4.
“I think we’d both like to tell you we’re not running against each other. We’re both running for a particular seat,” says Price. Patton laughs. “I’d have to have to agree with that assessment.”
Patton is 33 and Price is 39. They’re both Democrats, lawyers, and this is the first time they’ve run for anything. Never mind the presidential races, says Price. He tells me this is the most important thing on the ballot.
“A lot of people get caught up on national races, but it’s the local races that actually affect you,” explains Price. “You’re likely never to go before the President. But you have a greater chance of going before a judge that’s in your county or city.”
Patton agrees and says she’s happy to see so many people running for judicial seats, especially the variety of candidates.
“This is a perfect opportunity to change the face of the bench,” Patton remarks. “The bench within Jefferson County as well as Bessemer is changing dramatically.”
Patton and Price see being part of that change as a way to carry on their family legacies of justice work and public service. Chuck Price’s father was a pioneering circuit judge in Montgomery County. In fact, his name is on the courthouse building. Javan Patton’s grandfather was Dr. W.C. Patton, president of the Alabama NAACP when the group was banned in Alabama.
“It is truly time for the younger generation to step up and make themselves available to continue to build a more progressive society,” says Patton. “This is a time for us to do that, to make the changes that are necessary to continue to make our judicial system vital.”
She makes the primary judicial races sound really exciting, I tell Price.
“They are! Really exciting! Especially for the people who are in it, running for office,” Price remarks. “All the sacrifices that were made in the past…it’s time for us to take those reins and go forth and conquer.”
Winners on March 1 head to the November general election. Fourteen of Jefferson County’s judicial seats are up for grabs then.
Click below to listen to the entire League of Women Voters of Greater Birmingham’s Decision 2016 Jefferson County Judicial Candidate Forum.