You don’t have to spend much time around Judge Malcolm B. Street Jr. to understand that thoughtful exactitude is not a cloak — or a black robe — that comes off at the end of the day, or at the end of an interview with a reporter.
A simple conversation about the trial docket, or about where he grew up, or whether he enjoyed his weekend will reveal Street as a naturally reserved man, naturally thoughtful.
A survey of secretaries and lawyers and co-workers will confirm that assessment.
To hear it from his court reporter Stephanie Moore: “He’s very quiet, and he’s very patient.”
Those qualities, more than any robe or gavel, characterize his service for three decades as a Calhoun County circuit judge.
Now, as Street faces his last year on the bench before retirement, the judge looks back on his career with “no regrets” and “a general satisfaction.”
“Judging at the trial court level is a fairly lonely job,” he said, sitting back in his chair. “Because you are individually left to make decisions that impact people, and the decisions you make can have long-lasting consequences.”
As the longest-serving judge currently at the Calhoun County Courthouse, Street has — to list a few acts on the bench — presided over 779 jury trials, sentenced people to life in prison and to death, levied substantial fines on individuals and corporations, and ruled on child custody cases.
It was apparent that those years have been long ones: The judge pulled out a calculator for some simple math when asked how old he was when he was first robed.
After a few moments and an answer from the calculator, Street confirmed he was 34 years old when he won the seat in a 1976 election. He’d run against an incumbent who served one term.
“Your paper said it was an upset,” Street wryly told a Star reporter.
It was a small margin of victory that ultimately led to a lengthy stint at public service in the courtroom. Street’s meticulousness of thought and reserved demeanor may well be the result of all those years of lonely and difficult decisions.
“They’re decisions that a judge makes every day that affect people,” the judge said. He had just recently wrapped up a capital murder retrial in his courtroom. “And there’s not really any place you can go except within your own mind and within your own heart to get some additional comfort in the decision you’ve made.”
Mind of his own
But Street’s recollections of his youth, his early work as a lawyer and teacher and, eventually, judge, make it clear that the 69-year-old Anniston native has hardly ever sought comfort in the form of others’ opinions.
Even as a student at Anniston High School, the young Street resisted guidance from those around him.
“As I grew up, came through junior high and high school, I had a lot of people tell me, ‘You know, you ought to be a lawyer,’” Street remembered. “I sort of rebelled against that, I guess.”
Street convinced himself he wanted “to go the medical route,” and, in college at Birmingham Southern, he signed up to take a combination of pre-med and pre-law classes.
But toward the end of his freshman year, Street began to see law school as a way to keep his career options open and dropped the pre-med idea. Having made up his mind independently from those who urged him to go the legal route all along, Street graduated from law school in 1967 and began work as an attorney for the now-dissolved Anniston firm Burnham, Klinefelter and Halsey.
It was while working there that Street met the woman who would become his wife and his supporter when, in 1970, he helped Jacksonville State University start its first full-time criminal justice program.
“I did a lot of the courses then on my own … basically staying a course or two ahead of the students is what it amounted to initially,” Street said, briefly smiling at the memory. “That was a very interesting and exciting time. There was so much to do to build the program.”
Putting his attorney work on hold, Street dedicated his time to teaching courses on a variety of criminal justice topics, including introduction to law enforcement, basic criminal law, evidence and police administration.
Street described the efforts of attracting students to a new program as both fun and challenging. He enjoyed the classroom setting and interacting with students — something that doesn’t surprise the woman who has served as Street’s judicial assistant for the past five years.
Pam Austin said she relied on Street to help her understand the intricacies of filing orders and keeping track of criminal cases, something she’d never done before her job with Street.
“He will tell you anything you ask, and give you the reason behind the answer,” she said. “He’s a teacher.”
But as one the founders of the criminal justice program, Street was pulled away from the classroom, distracted by his increasing involvement with the administrative duties at JSU. That began to bother the judge as the years passed and he found himself detached from the students he loved to teach.
“It was getting to the point where some students would come through, and I wouldn’t know them as well,” he said. “As the administrative part consumed more of my time, it was really not as much fun.”
Around that time, “people came to see” him about running for circuit judge.
Street said he tried to rule out a judgeship as a career, just as he had before in high school when urged to study law. But on the last day of qualifying for the 1976 primaries, he changed his mind and threw his name into the race.
Who’s in charge
A JSU Student Handbook rule at that time called for the resignation of any person running for a public position other than a city council seat. So, with no guarantee that he’d win the seat and no guarantee that he’d have a job to support his family, Street resigned from his post at JSU.
“That was a ‘who’s in charge of your life?’ kind of question,” Street said.
He was, it appeared, because Street did win. And now, sitting in his spacious office, he has spent nearly an hour examining the 30-odd years spanning the transitions of that young attorney-turned-teacher-turned-judge.
Looking back for Street is sometimes easier than looking forward.
With retirement approaching, Street has options — return to teaching, finish a list of improvement projects at his Saks home, continue on as a judge in various cases across the state — but no definite plan.
Local attorneys said they’ll miss Street’s fair-mindedness on the bench.
“It’s going to be almost impossible to replace him as a judge,” criminal defense lawyer Randy Brooks said.
As for Street, he does have one plan for his last year in office: preside over his 800th jury trial.
“There’s nothing I enjoy more than a jury trial,” the judge said. “For my own personal satisfaction, I’d like to reach that number.”