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Moving to the courthouse
Morgan’s new judge: ‘Primarily what is expected of me is hard work’
By Ben Montgomery
The Decatur Daily

Jeronimo Nisa/The Decatur Daily
In January, Jennifer Howell will be leaving her office on Second Avenue Southeast in Decatur to go to the Morgan County Courthouse, where she will take over the duties of a circuit court judge.

Jennifer Howell defeated 18-year incumbent Sherrie Paler for the Morgan County Circuit Court Place 1 judgeship on Nov. 6 with 56 percent of the vote.

The 34-year-old Decatur attorney shared her reasons for choosing law, her plans for the future and why she has the ability to get the job done.

Question: Why did you go into law?

Answer: I’m one of these people that loves to learn. I don’t like sitting in front of the computer doing the same thing day in and day out. I was drawn to the legal profession. I graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration from Samford University. I started at a small business in Birmingham. I did everything there. I did their payroll, accounting, bookkeeping, computers, sales — kind of a little of everything. I also worked for AmSouth Bank in human resources. I went to night law school and kept working at the bank throughout law school. After law school, I came back to Decatur, where I’m from, and went to work immediately at the district attorney’s office, who was Bob Burrell at the time. I was the primary prosecutor for child abuse and child sex abuse cases. Then I wondered if I could defend after being a prosecutor for so long, and when I tried it, it was incredibly eye-opening to see it from the other side. I got a feel for people and their problems, and not just in a “What did they do?” way but also “Why did they do what they did?” I think it’s easy to become cynical when you do the same side of something for a long time. When Scott Anderson was elected two years ago, I opened my private practice. I practiced a little bit of everything, but my primary focus has been criminal.

Q: What do you think is expected of you?

A: I think primarily what is expected of me is hard work. A judge isn’t necessarily someone who knows every law about everything. A judge has to know how to research the law, how to find the law, how to find answers to questions they don’t know. They need to not be afraid to ask when they don’t know the answer. And that’s me. I love to learn. I care about making our court system accessible and more efficient. As far as criminal cases go, I think people are wanting to see some different things. I’m saying maybe develop some programs we have, like drug court. I think people want to see a judge that’s going to keep her cool.

Q: How are you different from your predecessor?

A: I think a lot of people are asking why it’s fair for someone to be forced off the bench after 18 years, and why I chose to run against an 18-year incumbent. Ultimately, none of it was a personal decision against her. Sherrie and I always got along. I spent many, many hours in her courtroom. I respect the work that she did. But like in any position, when you’re in it for a long time, you can become complacent. Things seem to be being done the way they’ve always been done. Throughout my career, I’ve always come into new jobs that seem like they would be over my head, and I’ve always just ... handled it. I’ve changed things and made things more efficient. That’s really what I want to do. I feel like I have a fresh enthusiasm for the position. But it’s a team effort between the three judges, so I don’t actually have the power to just come in and change things on my own. I’d like to see us holding more court. I’d like to see attorneys held accountable as far as their cases going to court. I think a lot of things get continued when they shouldn’t. I’d like to see more technology in the courtroom.

Q: Why walk away from a successful, steady career in private practice for a job that requires re-election every six years?

A: About a year ago, at a birthday party, some of the people who had been pushing me to run said, “If you love your county, you’ll do this.” I think we should all be drawn to giving something back.

Right now, I’m trying to get as many of my cases complete as I can and am referring the rest to other attorneys. I’m anticipating a 20-year career, too, but I know somebody else could be elected in six years. I can come back to private practice.

Q: How will you handle heavy cases, such as capital murder?

A: The other attorneys I’ve worked with are concerned that I’m going to be too strict on people. When you’re a prosecutor, generally what you want to do is put people in jail. Within the bar, there is some concern that I’m going to be real pro-police and anti-listening to people’s excuses. I think there has to be a balance in that, which is something I’ve really learned since going into private practice.

I had a case as a prosecutor — one of my first child-abuse cases — I had a little boy who was molested by his father from the time he was 6 until he was 13. When he was 17, it came to court. Throughout the course of that case, the father offered to pay the boy off. The father’s attorney recorded the boy recanting his statement under pressure in his office, the boy did not show up for court. ... It was basically a case anyone would have given up on. My boss calls that case my crusade. We tried the case, I won the case, and the father went to jail. But when the time came for sentencing, the judge considered a lot of different circumstances and it was eye-opening for me. I’ve always been compelled by that story because there’s more to law than just sending people to jail. But this is my county, and this is where my children will grow up. If anyone is going to keep this county safe, I will.

Jennifer Howell

Age: 34

Education: Bachelor’s degree in business administration from Samford University and Juris Doctorate from Birmingham School of Law.

Resume: Five years as assistant district attorney, two years in private practice. Also worked in human resources and business management.

Family: Husband Johnny Howell, 37, a sales tax and revenue investigator for Morgan County, and daughters Anna Kate, 5, and Ashtyn, 3.

Interests: “Kids and the random things they find fun, like going to the park and drawing on the sidewalk. ... On a more grown-up level, we have a boat and we love to get out on the lake and water ski. Mostly, outside activities.”

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