Judges won’t hear Phillips case

Published 12:17 am Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb now has the task of appointing a judge to hear the state’s felony ethics and theft case against indicted Probate Judge Sherrie Phillips.

The case, in which Phillips was indicted by a Covington County grand jury on two counts of first-degree theft, two counts of first-degree theft by deception, and two counts of intentionally misusing her public office for unlawful personal gain, was assigned to Circuit Judge Lex Short. Short recused himself from the case on Aug. 27 and presiding Circuit Judge Ashley McKathan followed suit on Sept. 2.

Both judges cited a working relationship with Phillips as the basis of recusal.

“The defendant is the probate judge of Covington County, Ala., and we all have worked with her in the same courthouse as she has for years. The appearance of justice requires us to recuse,” McKathan’s recusal form stated.

As the county’s presiding circuit judge, it is McKathan’s responsibility to request an appointment of a new judge to hear the case.

“And that has been done,” said Circuit Clerk Roger Powell. “As soon as we received Judge McKathan’s recusal, we forwarded a copy to (Supreme Court) Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb’s office. It’s now up to her to appoint a new judge.”

A spokesman in Cobb’s office said the order has been received from Covington County but the process of seeking a new judge has not yet begun.

“We have to find someone willing to take the case that doesn’t have any sort of conflict,” the spokesman said. “Once we find a judge, that order must still go before (Chief Justice Cobb) to be approved.”

The spokesman said it is unknown how long the process will take before a new judge is assigned.

The charges against Phillips stem from evidence presented to a Covington County grand jury in June. The state’s case is related to the estate of Cary Douglas Piper of Castleberry, and the theft of all or parts of checks for $1.8 million and $3,650.

State law does not allow judges under indictment to remain on the bench; Phillips currently is on paid leave. Earlier this summer, Cobb appointed Lee Enzor to serve as special judge of probate.

Meanwhile, a Birmingham attorney representing heirs to the Piper estate petitioned the probate court to re-open the estate. In August, Enzor ruled that the administrator of the estate and the attorney, who each received $450,000 from the estate, repay the funds. He further ordered that the case be moved to the probate court of Conecuh County, where Piper resided, after the funds have been repaid.

If convicted, Phillips could face a maximum penalty of two to 20 years imprisonment and fines of up to $30,000 for each count, all of which are class B felonies. Furthermore, Section 36-9-2 of the Code of Alabama states that when an officeholder is convicted of a felony, the office is vacated from the time of conviction.

The attorney general’s office has stated that its investigation is ongoing.