Long-time lawyer William led to judge race

Published 10:36 pm Wednesday, May 5, 2010

If you had asked Joel Lee Williams years ago if his name would be on the ballot for circuit judge, his answer probably would have been no. But Williams, a Troy attorney, will be the Democratic nominee for the Place 2 Circuit Judge race on the November ballot.

He will face the winner of the June 1 Republican primary between Clif Hastings, Pike County attorney, and Shannon Clark, Coffee County attorney.

Only after 29 years as a practicing attorney would Williams even consider throwing his name in the hat, he said.

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“I’ve tried cases, actually been in a courtroom trying cases in front of judges and juries. I’ve represented husbands and wives, civil plaintiffs and defendants and defended and prosecuted criminal cases,” he said. “I think all of that is absolutely invaluable to groom you to be a judge, and if I didn’t have that, I would never consider running for judge.”

Williams started his law career at the age of 24 and has been practicing in Troy since 1981. He also has been an adjunct professor at Jones Law School for 10 years during his career.

Williams qualified for election on the final day of qualifying, though he had made his mind up to seek office a few months before that. The experience he can offer is what he said made his decision.

“People deserve a knowledgeable and experienced judge, and I’m the only one in the race that can offer that,” he said. “Through 29 years of actual practice as a trial lawyer, I feel like I’ve grown into the position. I think that’s why they call it practice.”

If elected, Williams said he ensures fairness in how he handles his courtroom sentencing.

“If you go into the courtroom with a preconceived notion, you set fairness aside. Fairness for a first offender and a repeat offender are not necessarily the same thing,” he said.

Williams said sentencing in court would be much like raising children — since everyone is not the same they can’t be treated in exactly the same way.

“You treat them with what’s best for them,” he said.

Williams said “fairness” is something he can assure in all parts of the circuit, despite having fought in trial against many local lawyers in the courtroom.

“Being a lawyer, you understand you are an advocate for your client. Lawyers have a general understanding they are representing their client, and when it’s over you represent your next client,” he said. “You confine yourself to the facts and confine yourself to the law.”

Williams said he understands the rationale behind the Pike and Coffee counties long-standing gentleman’s agreement that says there should be a judge seated from each of the circuit’s three courthouses. Those now are Judge Robert Barr, of Troy; Judge Jeff Kelley, of Elba; and Judge Thomas Head of Enterprise.

But he said he also understands it’s not law.

“It is just what it is, a gentleman’s agreement, meaning it’s not law,” he said. “But there was also a rationale for it. As a practical matter, it makes sense.

“If anyone wants to say it’s not enforceable … fine, I agree with that. Why should you vote for somebody then? What is the criteria? I think by any objective standard, you hire me to fill the position.”

Williams said the circuit judge role is one that has a big impact on a community.

“The people of this circuit are about to hire a judge for the next six years. Either directly or indirectly, it’s going to affect you,” he said. “Directly, you may have a case — you may sue or be sued, may be a victim of crime or accused of a crime. Indirectly … how a judge handles a sentencing, how he treats someone who’s been convicted, affects a community where someone resides.”