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October 06, 2023 National Conference of Specialized Court Judges

(Proudly) Guilty as Charged

By Hon. Andra D. Sparks, Birmingham, AL

I am the presiding judge of the Birmingham Municipal court. I am also the senior pastor of the Forty-Fifth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Considering my background some folks think I “preach too much.” To that I say, “Guilty as charged – and proud of it.”

Of course what I preach on Sunday mornings may differ from the more secular perspective of a presiding judge and the newly minted immediate past chair of the National Conference of Specialized Court Judges. I hope that our Court’s mantra of “Where Accountability Meets Compassion” squares with my beliefs and is a baseline for other courts to emulate.

Municipal courts tend to handle what some may consider “lower level” offenses. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t important to the people involved and the community. I like to think that we have an opportunity to intervene while people are still on the “front porch” of the justice system.

Toward that end, the Birmingham Municipal Court has several specialty dockets aimed at improving the quality of life for participants and the community. These initiatives seek to address, among other concerns, impaired driving, offenses committed by veterans, code violations, domestic violence, misdemeanor gun crimes, juvenile curfew violations, and homelessness. Rather than simply repeatedly punish traffic offenders, interventions such as Project Renew seek to help people restore and keep their driving privilege promoting community safety.

We may not overcome every challenge, but we surely can make a difference and trying to make a difference is what I – here’s that word again – “preach” to my fellow judges. Far too often we preside over failures because, to at least some degree, we keep repeating the same old approaches hoping for different results. “Success stories” energize us as well as help our communities.

Another topic I like to “preach” is judicial outreach. The good news is that judicial outreach doesn’t have a narrow or precise definition. The Judicial Division has a menu of judicial outreach activities judges can initiate but there are many other opportunities.

The National Judicial College has a “Reading and Robes” program where judges go into schools and read to children. My successor as NCSCJ chair, Judge Sidney Butcher from Annapolis, Md., is one of those judges, securing grant money to obtain books for children.

Have you spoken to a Rotary Club or a school, church or community group about the work of the courts? If so, you’ve engaged in judicial outreach. You don’t need a formal program or budget to do this.

Another National Conference of Specialized Court Judges colleague, Richard Ginkowski of Pleasant Prairie, Wis., brought to the attention of local media that speed had overtaken alcohol as the leading cause of traffic fatalities in his state. A television station picked up on this and embarked on a recurring series of investigative reports and community conversations on the epidemic of reckless driving.

A judge in Nashville, hearing that some businesses were having difficulty finding employees, set up a “job fair” to help match probationers and prospective employers.

The pandemic brought courts online and instilled the word “Zoom” into our everyday vocabulary. Our court and many others expanded online services which not only provided more convenience to our stakeholders but also opportunities to improve participation and compliance.

My “little sermon” here is reaching the end. But I’m not finished “preaching.” I must extoll the virtues of “leadership by example.” As judges we are leaders in our communities – both the legal community and the greater community. We are in the “justice business” and can use our status to advocate, within ethical constraints, for positive change. And we should always ensure that we practice what we preach.

“Judicial wellness” is a concept that gained popularity during the pandemic. It’s not selfish to take care of yourself. Your car isn’t going anywhere without gas in the tank and a properly maintained engine.

Finally, I will preach “gratitude.” I am grateful for everyone who has helped me, my conference and the Judicial Division. I will look back with fondness on my service as conference chair and with confidence that my successor, Judge Butcher, will carry us forward with distinction. May you be blessed and enriched. Thank you.

Hon. Andra Sparks

2023-2024 Immediate Past Chair, National Conference of Specialized Court Judges

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