For Sybil Cleveland, it was a middle school epiphany, strengthened by a dedication to honor her parents.
For Jeff Grimes and Lonzo Robinson, it was the influence of and exposure to attorneys who were family friends and acquaintances.
For all three, it was a shared goal to enter the legal profession to help make a difference in the community.
Cleveland, Grimes and Robinson are the City of Huntsville Municipal Court judges, a team now at full-strength. Cleveland, who had been the only full-time judge in the court since the retirement of Judge Sonny Rodenhauser, is being joined by Grimes and Robinson, whose appointments have been approved by the City Council.
On Friday, Robinson, who served as a substitute judge in Municipal Court for 13 years and was most recently in the City Attorney’s office, was tabbed by Mayor Tommy Battle to become the presiding judge.
We have great people in the Municipal Court. This has been a long process but we’ll end up with a better court system for everybody.” — Mayor Tommy Battle
Inspired as youngsters
Cleveland recalled a moment in middle school “when I went to my, father and told him I wanted to go to law school. And the reason is because I always wanted to be an advocate, standing up for people. He embraced my dream and I never wavered from it,” she said.
She lost both her parents, Paul and Lily Sharpley, when she was in high school “and ever since that time I’ve had to draw on my background and my commitment I made to them that I would do this.”
Cleveland, a native of Hartselle, graduated with a B.A. in Political Science from the University of North Alabama and graduated law school at Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law. After working in general practice and as a prosecutor in Birmingham, she joined the Madison County District Attorney’s office in 1992, then was appointed Municipal Court Judge in 1999.
Grimes said that “growing up there were a lot of lawyers that my parents were friends with that I really admired. I just felt like it was a way I could serve the community.”
Grimes began working as a clerk in law firms as a high school student, then attended Washington & Lee University, earning a Bachelor’s in Philosophy. He graduated from University of Alabama School of Law.
Grimes has worked in the City Attorney’s office since May 2011, having previously been in private practice in the city.
Like Grimes, Robinson knew many people as youngster that “I looked up to and admired who were attorneys. I would think, ‘I want to do this because I can help accomplish something and can do good in the community. I can be a positive force.’”
Robinson said some of those tried to talk him out of the legal profession “and I tried to talk myself out of it sometimes, too.” Especially on a grueling weekend in 1994 when he graduated from UAB on a Friday, moved all his possessions to Tuscaloosa on Saturday and immediately began law school at the University of Alabama on Monday.
Municipal court’s important role
All three judges noted the importance of Municipal Court and its effect on the community. Cleveland said that 60 percent of residents will have some contact with Municipal Court, “anything from a parking ticket to a DUI to a more serious violation.”
“In some ways, it’s the most important court,” Grimes said. “This is usually the first interaction with the justice system and you have an opportunity to impact those people’s lives.”
“You can describe it as an ‘everyman’s court,’” Robinson said. “Most people are not going to be in a felony court, being charged with robbery or murder. The average person might get a DUI, fall into some minor trouble. One thing to remember is we are the first and hopefully only contact these people are going to have with the criminal justice system. … It’s important that we function in an efficient manner, to remember we are here to administer justice and let’s make sure they have their rights protected.”
Pictured (L-R): Municipal Court Judges Jeff Grimes, Sybil Cleveland, and Lonzo Robinson