Local attorneys seek district judge seat

Published 3:00 am Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Three local attorneys are seeking to follow in the footsteps of one of Alabama’s longest-serving judges – District Judge William Hightower – in the upcoming Republican primary.

Steven Curtis, January “Jana” Blair Ellis and Virginia Green Nowling say they want to continue to run the court with the integrity that Hightower has exhibited over the last 42 years.

“I am a Hightower-trained attorney,” said Ellis. “I’ve learned a lot from him about the practice of law.”

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Curtis said the judge has earned a reputation not just locally, but statewide.

“He leaves a void; not just in the county, but in the state,” Curtis said. “I’m interested in making sure the things he has done for district court in Pike County continue. It’s his baby; he’s the only district judge we’ve ever had in Pike County.”

Nowling said that the current courthouse staff will help to keep the administrative part of the job running as smoothly as it does under Judge Hightower. “He has done an outstanding job issuing orders in a timely manner and handling the business of the court,” Nowling said. “I certainly want to follow his lead. We’re fortunate to have Jamie Scarbrough as circuit clerk, who has worked with Judge Hightower for over 20 years; she and her staff are a valuable asset. I would expect us to continue with that high standard.”

Nowling is the only candidate to suggest that she would be interested in bringing a driving school program to district court.

“Our district court does not offer driving school for first time offenders, but our municipal court does,” Nowling said. “Right now, if you receive a speeding ticket in district court, unless the case is appealed to circuit court, you can’t get into driving school. Driving school is standard in most District Courts in the State. I would like to see our court move forward in that direction with a reputable driving school-not an online course.” Nowling further stated that she would also like to see a domestic violence court established. “Domestic violence is a growing problem in our community and I want to see that change.”Steven Curtis said he follows Hightower’s line of thinking that the law doesn’t outline a way to provide a driving school.

“(Hightower) doesn’t do traffic court,” Curtis said. “There’s really no legal authority to do it. He’ll say ‘show me in those books where it says I can do it’ … People pay a fee to get into the program. It doesn’t go to the state, it goes to a private program. All that money is lost … Judge Hightower has never done it, so why start it?”

Ellis said there’s no way to know whether a driving school would work without looking more closely at the financial aspect.

“Before placing any type of program that would take away funding, we would have to know more facts,” Ellis said. “Assuring you have the money is important. Can’t say whether in favor of driving school don’t know how that would impact the finances. Don’t know whether it adds or takes away any value.”

Ellis said the main focus of the race should be taking on the massive amount of work that the District Judge must do.

“We had 6,800 cases last year – that’s just new filings,” Ellis said. “That is just what is on the court schedule; it does not include the other duties that includes the issuing of search warrants, 72-hour hearings and a good bit of studying and learning about the ever-changing law. You don’t just go in to be a judge and nothing changes; rulings come down that are going to effect the way the court system runs. I want to make sure that things are going as they should be going.”

Curtis said he is accustomed to working long hours and is ready for the challenge.

“It’s a lot of hours, but I’m willing to put the hours in to get the job done,” Curtis said. He said his experience as the attorney for the Department of Human Resources in addition to his other attorney work already has him working long and hard on cases that often don’t even make it to the courtroom.

Curtis said he will be healthy and ready to take on the job despite suffering a stroke last month.

“I wanted to dispel some rumors about my health and clear up the situation,” he said. On April 17, he experienced an episode of dizziness, nausea and headache. He was diagnosed with a vertebral artery dissection, a type of internal artery tear that can be caused by trauma to the neck, such as popping or twisting.

“I did spend some time in the hospital at UAB, but I want to make sure folks know that I have been evaluated by the best neurologists at UAB and they have confirmed that I’m healthy,” he said. “There is no lingering cognitive or mental impairment and I have been cleared to practice law, to drive without assistance and to return to campaigning.”

Curtis said the incident could have been caused by twisting his neck or could have occurred spontaneously. “It wasn’t caused by stress or other health issues,” he said. “There’s no higher risk of that happening again then there was of it happening in the first place.”

What the race should come down to, Curtis said, is qualifications of the candidates.

“I’ve been practicing law for almost 20 years 19 of those here in Troy,” Curtis said. “ … I’ve represented DHR since 2006, so I have a whole lot of experience with dependency cases. There are kids being removed from their parents – sometimes that’s good and sometimes it’s bad. The judge’s job is to ensure those kids’ best interests are met … Everything the judge does is important, but juvenile dependency is big-time … I work closely with Judge Hightower right now to ensure none of those cases slip through the cracks. That gives me a little bit more credibility and the ability to serve as the district judge. I never thought I’d want to be a judge, but with Judge Hightower retiring, it’s something I feel qualified to do. I feel like I’m the most qualified candidate.”

In addition to his work with DHR, Curtis has served as the attorney for the Troy City Schools Board of Education for seven years as well as prosecuting in Brundidge’s municipal court.

Nowling has been practicing law for 23 years and has experience both in prosecution and defense.

“Early on, I knew that I wanted to be an attorney,” Nowling said. “I worked as an intern for the Lee County District Attorney’s Office while I was a student at Auburn University. After graduation, I began law school and worked at the Alabama Attorney General’s Office in the Consumer Affairs Division. I have had many opportunities which I feel have uniquely prepared me for the position of district judge. Fresh out of law school, I served as an Assistant District Attorney in Russell County where I was assigned to the Juvenile Court and served as a City Prosecutor for Phenix City.

“Another opportunity I was blessed with was to work as a Law Clerk at the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals. There, I wrote appellate opinions for Juvenile and Family Law cases. For many years, I maintained an office in both Troy and Montgomery and handled numerous Juvenile Delinquency and Dependency cases. I, also, handled complex Family Law cases in Pike and the surrounding counties. During this time, I served as a Prosecutor for the City of Montgomery and was chosen as the Domestic Violence Prosecutor for the newly formed Domestic Violence Docket. I feel that my background gives me a broad perspective and a vision for our court. “When asked what drives her to take on judicial duties, Nowling said, “I have a passion for justice and a passion for people. I feel that a Judge has the opportunity to help bring out the best in people. You have to have a passion about what you’re doing to be good at it,” Nowling said. “I have a passion for what I do.”

Ellis said her 12 years practicing law in Troy is plenty of experience for the job, especially with her practice.

“I went to Troy State University and got a degree in business with a focus on accounting,” Ellis said. “I do think that’s important for this position. I’ve been able to learn my skills there and have a successful business that I run daily … There’s a business aspect to disposition of cases. We have an excellent rate on that and it’s going to take someone willing to put in the work to make sure the cases are disposed of in a timely manner.”

Ellis has limited experience in prosecution, but she said that isn’t important for her to be a viable judicial candidate.

“We’re required as defense attorneys to make sure each client gets a fair and impartial treatment, make sure search warrants are accurate and make sure everything was done correctly, and certainly advocate for the client as well,” Ellis said. “A district judge has those same jobs, including obtaining a search warrant. That district judge is going to determine if there is probable cause for a search warrant.”

Ellis also serves in several leadership positions including president of the Pike County Bar Association.

The candidates will compete for the seat in the Republican primary on Tuesday, June 5.