On January 14, Scott Vowell will step down after 18 years as Presiding Judge of the Jefferson County Circuit 10 Civil Division. A highly respected jurist, Vowell first won election in 1994 and was re-elected without opposition to two subsequent six-year terms.
A native of Anniston, Vowell, 75, graduated from Auburn University and the University of Virginia School of Law. His legal education began at a time when the Commonwealth of Virginia was fighting integration of its public schools, and the university law school was awarding special scholarships to selected applicants from Southern states. Vowell was the Alabamian selected — an honor he recalls more than 50 years later with a wry observation: “I got my Virginia law education as the result of affirmative action.”
Vowell came to Birmingham after earning his law degree in 1961, taking a position with the firm of Beddow, Embry and Beddow. The firm’s founding partner, Roderick Beddow, Sr., was then in the twilight of his career as a legendary trial lawyer in Alabama. His peers revered him for both brilliance in the courtroom and impeccable ethical standards.
Beddow was a political liberal in segregated Birmingham, and the firm regularly represented black plaintiffs. “It was nothing to walk into our office on Monday morning and see people there with bound heads or arms or otherwise hurt by Bull Connor’s police department,” Vowell recalls. That was a formative influence on the young lawyer, who notes today that he “grew up in the ‘40s and ‘50s, when segregation was a way of life, and it never occurred to me to question it.”
“That experience,” Vowell says, “dealing with those men who were really dedicated to the rule of law, and seeing the victims of the Birmingham Police Department in those days of segregation, really formed my views of right and wrong and what the law could do to help people. It changed the way I looked at things.”
Vowell stayed with the Beddow firm until 1987, when he became partner in his own firm, Vowell & Meelheim, until his election to the bench. As both a lawyer and a judge, he has been active in addressing various issues, most notably the availability of legal services to the poor. In retirement, he plans to establish a practice in alternative dispute resolution — arbitration and mediation — and hopes to take advantage of a newly enacted Alabama statute that allows parties in civil disputes to agree to hire former or retired judges to preside over and rule on their cases, rather than having it resolved through the court system.
Last week, in advance of his last day on the job, Vowell sat for a wide-ranging interview with Weld publisher Mark Kelly. The following is excerpted from their conversation.
Weld: You’ve been a judge for nearly two decades. What are some of the most notable changes you’ve seen in the court system in that time?
Vowell: Just in terms of the way we run the courts, the biggest change is our conversion from paper to electronic format. When I first came up here 18 years ago, we essentially had no computers. We had electric typewriters, and all of our orders had to be entered in paper form in the clerk’s office, from where it would be mailed out to the parties. Now all of that is done electronically. Our number of employees in the clerk’s office has gone from 101 to 38. With those reductions, which have been the result of reductions in appropriations, we would not be operating if we had not gone to electronic filing.
In terms of the courts in general, we’ve certainly had a huge change in the appellate courts in Alabama. They’re one hundred percent Republican now, mostly backed by business interests. There are no Democrats on our Supreme Court in Alabama or on either of our Courts of Appeal. Nor are there any African-Americans.
Weld: While you’re on that train of thought —
Vowell: [Laughing] While I’m wound up?
Weld: Well, that gets us into the issue of politics in the judiciary. Is it a good thing that we choose judges in partisan elections?
Vowell: I think that partisan elections are the worst way imaginable to select judges. If you go before a judge, you certainly don’t want one who is known for his or her politics. You want a judge who’ll be guided by the law, not some ideologue who thinks that all lawsuits are bad, or one who thinks that plaintiffs should always win.
The judiciary needs to be removed as far as it can be from politics. By having to run under a party label, you have judges and judicial candidates right in the middle of partisan politics in its worst form. There’s certainly a tendency to get people with pre-set ideas about the way a case should be decided. That’s the antithesis of everything you want in a judge.
The result of that is what we saw in the elections in November. Here in Jefferson County, we had a complete Democratic sweep. In most other places in Alabama, there was a complete Republican sweep. In both cases, we lost some excellent judges, Democrat and Republican, and their defeats had absolutely nothing to do with their merit or lack of merit. They were swept out simply because people voted a straight party ticket. So I think the place to start would be to remove the potential for straight ticket voting. That way, at least you require voters, if they’re going to be electing the judiciary, to make individual decisions about the people who are running for office.
Weld: How difficult would it be to make that change?
Vowell: Of course, it’s hard to get any change done in Alabama, especially in that area. We used to be a one-party state where it was all Democrats, and they didn’t want to do anything about it. Now, we seem to have switched to an all-Republican state, and they don’t want to change it. I’m hoping that after these last elections, where both sides lost some good judges, maybe both sides will be more willing to take a look at it. I hope so, but it’s going to be hard to accomplish.
Weld: One of the issues you’ve spoken out on for some time is inadequate funding of the judicial system in Alabama. Why do we have that problem?
Vowell: As everybody knows, the Alabama Constitution of 1901 is terribly flawed and needs to be replaced. But it specifically provides that the Legislature shall adequately fund the courts. The courts are not an agency, they’re a third and equal branch of government, along with the executive and the legislative. Of course, what “adequate funding” means depends on who’s being asked, but there has been an actual reduction for the past several years in appropriations for the courts. I think that the Legislature often finds the courts and judges to be a convenient target [for budget cuts].
Another thing that everybody knows, but nobody will talk about, is that the real problem in our state is that we don’t have adequate income to provide needed government services. Nobody will even utter the words anymore after the overwhelming defeat of [then-Gov. Bob] Riley’s tax reform proposal [in 2003]. That’s what we’ve got to have, adequate income to fund not only the courts, but all of the things that people depend on government providing. Maybe someday we’ll get a political leader who’s brave enough to tell the truth about it.
Weld: What would meaningful tax reform look like? Was Riley on the right track?
Vowell: I don’t think it necessarily means increased taxes. It just needs to be a reallocation of the way we tax. Huge amounts could be secured from taxation on undeveloped land, and it wouldn’t mean that the average taxpayer is going to pay any more. One of the reasons Riley’s plan failed was that it was too comprehensive, too hard to understand. It needs to be taken a bite at a time. But the crowd that’s in control now in the Legislature and the Governor’s office won’t even talk about it.
Weld: Back for a second to the issue of judicial funding. What has been the impact of the county’s financial troubles on funding for our courts in Jefferson County?
Vowell: In the past, when we got shorted by the Legislature and were faced with laying people off and things like that, I could go to the County Commission and explain to them our needs and they would be able to bail us out. Now, with the county in bankruptcy and the state squeezing, we’ve struggled to get whatever we can just to keep things operating.
Weld: What is the long-term outlook for the county, in your view?
Vowell: I’m encouraged. [The current County Commission] took the hand they were dealt. I think that every one of the five of them has the best interests of the county at heart. The hiring of the county manager, Tony Petelos, has been a great improvement. There are still bumps in that road, as we change from the county commissioners micromanaging things and giving up some of that power to the manager, but I think it’s certainly going to help.
The structure of the county government has been responsible for a lot of our problems. Each of the five is elected from a separate geographical area and then appointed to oversee departments, so we haven’t had anybody in charge of the whole. That’s a built-in defect in the system. Of course, it’s there to achieve fair representation for minorities, and the districts are drawn so that we have three white Republican commissioners and two African-American Democratic commissioners. That fairly represents the racial makeup of the county, but we need to figure out how to put somebody there who’s responsible for the whole. Other communities have done it.
Weld: Speaking of communities, let’s talk for a moment about Birmingham as a community. What are your thoughts about our future?
Vowell: I try to stay optimistic about things. [Chuckles] That gets very hard to do at times. I still think race is a big issue with our people. We’ve come a long, long way, as you can tell by looking around this courthouse. The perception of justice is probably as important as the actual product, and I think when people come to the courthouse and they look up on the bench and, as my colleague Judge Houston Brown says, they “see somebody who looks like me,” that really helps to give the perception of fairness and the idea that the judiciary cares about people regardless of race. But it’s still an issue, something we’ve just got to keep working on.
With the changes we’ve seen since in Birmingham since 1963, we know that change can be made. It’s just going to take time and patience and a lot of people of goodwill. We’ve got good people, but one of the issues that I have never been able to come up with an answer to is that our people are the most religious, churchgoing people anywhere, and yet this does not seem to be reflected in the way they treat others. I don’t understand that, why it is that some of our most religious people tend to be some of our most intolerant.
Weld: Before we wrap this up, I wonder if you’d care to talk a bit about the things that shaped your philosophy toward the law, particularly as it relates to being a judge.
Vowell: At the Virginia Law School, we had some great legal scholars as teachers. Most of them were members of what’s come to be called the school of American judicial realism. Essentially, we learned that the law is such a moving, living thing, almost an organism. You can’t just look at words of a constitution or a statute and say that this meant that precise thing when it was written and it always will mean that. Things change in context, and so much of it is subjective with the person who’s a judge. It would be nice if the law were as static and as objective as some of the more conservative judges conclude — but it’s not.
Weld: For example?
Vowell: The idea of due process, which changes constantly. What was acceptable a hundred years ago is not acceptable now. The law is a changing, fluid concept, and it is so dependent on the goodwill of the people who are put into these judicial offices. That’s why the method of judicial selection is so important, as we’ve talked about.
Weld: As a retired judge, will you be politically engaged and active in some of these reform issues we’ve talked about?
Vowell: I hope I’ll have a chance to be. I’m still a Democrat, though as a judge for the last 18 years I’ve tried to be non-political, haven’t participated in party activities or anything like that. But I hope that there’ll be some outlet, somebody who will listen to me [laughs], although a progressive Democrat’s advice is not in great demand in Montgomery these days.
I will keep involved particularly in telling people what I think about judicial races. The [Birmingham] Bar Association does a poll, but this year we didn’t have any judicial recommendations from the local press. So the public really is making these choices blindly, and it’s so important to have elected people who know what they’re doing and whose heart is in the right place.
Weld: We’ve touched on the need for stronger leadership. Without getting into parties or personalities, do you see any hope on the horizon for leaders who can move us forward?
Vowell: For years now, we’ve had all of these leadership programs — Leadership Birmingham, Leadership Alabama, and so on — and I hope that someday we’ll see some effect of that. We just haven’t seen many people who are willing to get into the political scene, just because politics is so rough-and-tumble and so mean-spirited.
I do see a lot of hope in younger people. They don’t have the set ideas that my generation had. I think they’re more open to new things. They’re not as judgmental, and I think they’re kinder. The challenge is that so many of them — like my 26-year-old son, who lives and works in D.C. — leave Alabama and never come back. That’s been our problem since the Civil War. If we can do something about that, I think we can have some hope.