Unwritten agreement risking violation?

Published 6:35 pm Friday, October 23, 2009

Come 2010, there could be no seated judge in the Pike County Courthouse after Circuit Judge Robert Barr hangs up his coat.

Or, at least it’s a risk.

While local attorney Clif Hastings is putting his name in the hat, Coffee County attorney Shannon Clark is also seeking the seat.

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It’s an election that could mean the three-courthouse circuit — Pike, Elba and Enterprise — may have all three judges from the Coffee County area.

Though circuit judges rotate through all the courthouses, a win for Clark could mean the end of an unwritten “gentleman’s” agreement.

It all started in the 1960’s as long-time local attorney Thomas Haigh remembers it.

“Up until that particular point in time, there was only one judge for the circuit,” Haigh said. “Once the second judgeship was created, the arrangement made by the attorneys of Pike and Coffee Counties was that always one of the judges would come one from Pike and one from Coffee County.”

Once a third seat was added, the agreement was modified again to include that one of the judges would come from Elba, Enterprise and Pike County, Haigh said.

“It was something the Bar Association came up with on the basis to allow the simplest and easiest distribution of limited resources. That way all the courthouses are all covered to the maximum extent possible,” Haigh said.

As a practicing attorney, Haigh said the “gentleman’s agreement” has served the counties well.

“(It helps) so you don’t have to sit around waiting to see when my case is going to come up for trial,” Haigh said.

“Judges can look at their schedules and see relatively quickly a time frame.”

Since the agreement was established, Haigh said there has been only one incident that even came close to a violation.

“The closest to a violation of the agreement took place four years ago when Judge Head was up for election,” Haigh said. “Judge Head switched parties and decided to run as a Republican, and as a result, the Democratic Party was running around frantically trying to find a particular candidate. The only person that would consider doing anything on the spur of the moment was Joel Williams, who agreed to put his name on the ballot and as soon as the primary was over withdrawl.”

That, Haigh said, was just to give the party a chance to substitute a candidate from Elba.

Haigh said what would happen if there is no seated judge in Pike County, is attorneys would have to drive to get court orders for their clients.

And, clients’ attorney fees would increase.

“For example, I had a lady come in my office the other day from the state of Florida, and she had an order awarding her custody of her child in the state of Florida, but the daddy lives up here,” Haigh said.

“He was not giving the child back, and the sheriff’s department can’t go casually kick in the front door. You have to go through the procedure and get an order to say ‘Go and get this child.’”

On that day, Haigh said all the judges were out of town, something that is extremely unusual.

But, it could become norm if a Pike County contestant doesn’t take the seat.

Clark said if she’s elected, she wouldn’t leave Pike County without a judge.

“Quite frankly, I’m not part of any gentleman’s agreement nor will I ever be because I think it restricts the rights of voters,” Clark said.

“They don’t spend much more time in one courthouse. Also, I don’t live in Troy, Elba or Enterprise.”

Clark said she lives in the north part of Coffee County, and a drive to any of the courthouses is all the same.

“If I’m fortunate enough to be elected, I got a 15 to 20 minute drive to anywhere. I don’t mind making my home office in Troy if that’s a concern,” she said.

But, Hastings said he thinks sticking to the gentlemen’s agreement is important for all counties.

“I believe it’s in the best interest of the people in the entire circuit of Coffee and Pike Counties to have representation on the judicial bench from both counties,” Hastings said.

“I believe it’s important for both counties to have a voice on the judicial bench as has been maintained for many years, and I believe it would be unfair for either county to not have a voice on the judicial bench.”