Growing the Bench: Huntsville Municipal Court to get additional judge

single-meta-cal September 12, 2017

The City of Huntsville’s Municipal Court, located in the Public Safety Complex, is not the courtroom of network dramas, of breathless reporters poking microphones toward suspects squirming through hallways, of grandiloquent oratory from attorneys in $6,000 suits. It has little tension and gains little attention.

Nonetheless, what takes place in Municipal Court is no less essential in its service to justice and the community.

“Generally you don’t find newsworthy or noteworthy cases (at Municipal Court) but they’re important nonetheless,” says City Attorney Trey Riley. “What’s important about Municipal Court and why we take it so seriously is that it’s often the first time a citizen may come afoul of the law and it’s their first time, and hopefully only, exposure to the criminal justice system.

The idea behind adding an additional full time municipal judge is to make our justice system easier, faster for citizens.”

“So it’s important we have a good, competent operation, we have good, effective judges who are on the ball and are open to seeing these people as individuals, and to fashion their response with an eye on how to keep these people from graduating to more serious offenses,” Riley continued.

The Huntsville City Council has approved a plan to have three full-time judges for Municipal Court, which has been shorthanded since the retirement last year of Judge Sonny Rodenhauser. Currently, Judge Sybil Cleveland serves full-time and Judge Scott Rogers serves in a part-time capacity.

After its extensive interview process, the Council will name two new judges on Thursday, September 14, then Mayor Tommy Battle will meet with the judges and later in the month will appoint the Presiding Judge.

The role of the court

The expansion is necessary for convenience and expedience.

“The whole gist of this is to make our justice system a little bit easier for people to use it,” Battle says. “If we can make it a fair and easy system, people will have more confidence in it.”

The municipal court handles violations of city ordinances and codes. It sees defendants charged with traffic violations, DUI and misdemeanors, such as an assault without serious injury, shoplifting, vandalism and the like. It’s comparable to a District court, where there is no jury, but verdicts rendered there may be appealed to a Circuit court.

The need for three full-time judges is due to several factors:

  • A growing city and growing caseload.
  • The rise in “diversion courts” to which a defendant might be referred, where assistance, rather than punishment, may be more appropriate.
  • To minimize time between an initial appearance and a scheduled court date.
  • To provide courtroom hours more convenient to residents, enabling them to perhaps schedule an appearance at night or on a Saturday to avoid missing work time.
  • To provide hours more convenient to Huntsville Police Officers who must testify. Often, third-shift officers find themselves getting off work at 8 a.m., having to make a court appearance at 1, then be back on the streets at 11 p.m. Says HPD Chief Mark McMurray, “We hope this not only keeps our officers on the street, but also makes the Municipal Court experience more convenient for the citizens.”

‘Order in the court’

Roughly the size of half a basketball court, the Municipal Courtroom has several rows of springy plastic chairs in a spectator/waiting area. In the front of the room, a judge sits behind the desk, a clerk to the right, a row of law books and stacks of manila folders to the left. An easel nearby commands that conversations be held to a minimum and cellphones turned off. A bailiff is quite willing to enforce the command, much to the embarrassment and chagrin of a recognizable attorney scrolling for texts.

It is a busy place on this recent afternoon. In the course of an average 15-minute span, six defendants come before to the judge. They are fined, dismissed, admonished, released or their cases rescheduled. However, don’t dismiss this as some “Quik-Serv Justice,” as if it could be performed at a drive-through window.

In conversation barely perceptible to spectators, the judge hears testimony from the defendant and often from a police officer. Then having already pored over the paperwork, the judge renders a decision.

The defendant typically signs a form and solemnly walks from the room. No reporters await outside. No verdict makes the headlines. But, ideally, it has been a matter handled with expedience and wisdom, where both justice and the citizen have been fairly served.