Mobile County GOP judge hopefuls weigh in on bail

Published: May. 19, 2022 at 8:34 PM CDT
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MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - The three Republicans running for Mobile County District Court judge favor a constitutional amendment that would allow judges to deny bail to people accused of serious crimes, but all say those decisions must be made on a case-by-case basis.

Longtime prosecutor Jennifer Wright and lawyers John Williams and Chris Callaghan are vying to replace retiring District Judge George Hardesty. All three have a background in law enforcement.

Wright and Williams both have served as assistant district attorneys, and Callaghan was a police officer in Fulton County, Georgia, before getting his law degree.

Tuesday’s primary election will take place amid a surge in violent crime that has led to complaints from prosecutors, police – even Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson – that judges are too lenient in setting bail for dangerous felons. The mayor repeatedly has said there are some 125 people walking the streets who face murder charges.

“I’ve been fighting that fight, and that’s one of the reasons I’m running,” said Wright, who joined the Mobile County District Attorney’s Office in 2003 and served on the so-called “murder team” that prosecutes the most serious felony cases.

Wright, who graduated from Mississippi College School of Law, said she has seen the impact of low bonds first hand.

“And I’ve been in the courtroom where I’ve been asking for that to happen, and it hasn’t happened,” she said. “And I can tell you, personally, it’s a tough conversation to walk out the back door with a victim’s family member.”

Callaghan touts his experience as a municipal judge in Jackson and Orange Beach, and his service as a “special district judge” filling in when full-time judges cannot take the bench. He recalled trying to revive a fellow police officer who basically died in his arms after getting shot.

Callaghan said he first experienced the bail issue as a police officer.

“I would arrest people,” he said. “They would get out on bond, and then they would commit more crimes. As a police officer, we’d call it the revolving door. They’d just get out, commit more crimes; get out; commit more crimes.”

Williams, who graduated from Citronelle High School and went on to undergraduate and law degrees at the University of Alabama, said he is the only candidate in the race who grew up in Mobile County. He points to his background as a former Montgomery County assistant district attorney, his service the past 25 years as municipal court judge in Citronelle and stints as city prosecutor and judge in Satsuma.

“As a municipal judge, I have set bonds,” he said. “I have revoked bonds. I’ve had people on probation. I’ve revoked probation. And I’ve put people in jail for the maximum amount of time that you can in municipal court.”

With similar views on bail, the candidates have sought to distinguish themselves from one another in other ways. Williams points to his experience as both a judge and a lawyer in private practice handling civil cases. In addition to setting bail and handling other aspects of criminal cases before they go to grand juries, district judges also preside over civil cases involving disputes up to $20,000.

“Obviously, the bonds are important,” he said. “Obviously, the criminal cases are important and the safety of the community is important, but people seem to forget that a district court also comprises civil cases. … I’ve handled plaintiff’s cases. I’ve handled civil defense cases.”

Callaghan said he is the one who is uniquely qualified. He said he is well-versed in civil law, which makes up the vast majority of the state’s legal code. He drew special attention to his experience handling landlord-tenant disputes as both a judge and a lawyer.

“I’ve handled over 200 of those cases as an attorney, have handled those cases as a special district court judge, and I’m very familiar with the Alabama Residential Landlord Tenant Act,” he said. “In order to handle those cases, you need to have practice that area of law.

Wright, who took a leave of absence from the Mobile County DA”s Office and has been working as a prosecutor in Baldwin County, said her opponents with experience as municipal judges cannot match her background as a prosecutor.

“A municipal judge handles misdemeanors, and traffic tickets and speeding tickets,” she said. “They do not handle any violent cases. So those that have been municipal judges have not been in the courtroom fighting for victims, and have not been in the courtroom handling murder cases.”

There is no Democratic candidate, so the winner of the Republican primary is all but assured of taking the seat. The new judge will serve a six-year term and earn almost $141,780.


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