For most of us, encountering a judge is something we’d rather not do. It usually means we are looking at a stretch on jury duty or something worse involving criminal or civil charges.
Yet, we in The Star newsroom almost always learn something from chatting with a man or woman who presides over a courtroom. If you want to gain a clear picture of the human condition here in our corner of the world, judges are a reliable, if also often depressing, source. They frequently see people at their worst.
Consider the opening to a newly published book by former Supreme Court Chief Justice and current Democratic candidate for governor Sue Bell Cobb. She begins There Must Be A Witness: Stories of Abuse, Advocacy, And The Fight To Put Children First this way: “What I’ve seen in the courtroom has tested my ability to remain composed and professional; what I’ve seen in government is arguably worse. Every judge, lawyer, police investigator, teacher, and social worker is dogged by a story — perhaps file cabinets full of them.”
The details of emotional and physical abuse as well as neglect suffered by children in the book are heartbreaking,
Yet, conversations with judges also illustrate glimmers of hope, good news that these littlest victims are not forgotten.
We heard about one such positive story during Thursday’s candidate forum at the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce office in Anniston.
Place 1 District Judge Tom Wright, who replaced Judge Laura Brown Phillips after she stepped down from the bench in 2016, spoke about the merits of the Family Drug Court. Wright’s opponent, Jacksonville attorney Marilyn Hudson, did not attend the forum.
The state’s Family Drug Court, as explained succinctly by the UAB School of Medicine, “is a non-adversarial court that strives to combine treatment and positive reinforcement to reunite families in an expedited manner.”
To get to the heart of the program, consider a 2015 St. Clair Times article that quoted a man whose addiction would have otherwise placed him on a path toward 15 years behind bars and no chance to see his young daughter grow up. “St. Clair County Drug Court changed my life,” he said.
Wright credited Judge Phillips with nurturing the local Family Drug Court, which began in 2007. It is currently overseeing 35 families.
“It is one of the best things, I believe, that our court system has done in a long time,” he said.
A couple of weeks ago, seven people graduated out of the local Family Drug Court program. “I have never been prouder of anything I have done in family court in my life,” Wright said.
“Those seven people got their families back. They got their children back. They’re healthy. They’re happy. And their children are safe,” he said. “I’m not a cryer, but that was an exception to the rule.”
It brought to mind a well-known quote by South African icon Nelson Mandela. “The true character of society is revealed in how it treats its children,” he said. A long and honest conversation with a judge is a reliable way to discover that character.