Probate judges once ruled

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 21, 2011

We are in the midst of the holiday season with Christmas just around the corner. However, we are also in political season. Traditionally, we have held our primaries in June but earlier this year, in a cost-saving measure, the legislature changed the date of our primary. In order to have one primary instead of two they combined the presidential and general election primary into one date. That day is March 13. Thus, qualifying is fast approaching. The last day to qualify for the March 13 primary and Nov. 6, 2012, General Election is Jan. 13. Therefore, you might be seeing campaign ads rather than holiday greetings on television and you might be getting a campaign solicitation letter with your Christmas cards.

The 2012 Election could well be dubbed the Year of the Judge. The presidential contest will be the marquee event. However, our state judicial races will take center stage next year. Five out of nine of our State Supreme Court seats are up for election, as well as several seats on the appellate courts and a good many circuit judges throughout the state. In addition to these very important state court posts, all 68 probate judges in the state are up for election.

Some of you may wonder why there are 68 probate judges and only 67 counties. Before you write to correct me, the imperial county of Jefferson has two probate judges. The once vaunted and mystical throne of probate judge in Alabama has gone by the wayside with the passing of years. It has become a quasi bureaucratic, quasi judicial and clerical position. They now spend a lot of time on family and estate matters. They have also become inundated with commitment hearings. Nevertheless, the GOP has made taking over these offices a priority in this election year in their march towards total domination of Alabama politics.

As late as 50 years ago the office of probate judge in Alabama was the most powerful and prestigious position in Alabama politics. In every county in Alabama, especially in rural Alabama, the probate judge was the omnipotent ruler of the county and essentially the king of the county. He was not only the judge, he appointed all county positions, hired all county employees and ruled the county as chairman of the county commission.

Not only was he the most powerful political figure in the county, he also became one of the wealthiest people in the county through his judgeship. There were no ethics laws in that era. Therefore, it was common practice for someone aspiring to sell equipment, gas, supplies or build roads for the county to grease the palms of the probate judge. However, this pay-to-play practice was not the most lucrative vein of remuneration for the judge. The probate judge by law was on the fee system. That meant that he essentially owned the highest office in the county. He received a fee off of all transactions made in the office. He got a cut off of every car tag or license sold in the county.

It was estimated that the salary of a probate judge in 1962 was around $100,000 per year even in small counties. That, my friends, would equate to about $300,000 or more today. He was not only king of the county, he also made a kingly salary. The probate judge term is for six years. With that kind of reward you can imagine the competition to capture that perch in that era.

The best politician in the county essentially emerged victorious. He knew where the votes were and how to count votes. There were quite a few votes that could be bought at that time, usually with a pint of whiskey and a $5 bill. The probate judge knew who those folks were and where to find them. Thus, the economic saying that you have to spend money to make money applies to politics in this case. To the victor goes the spoils. The rewards of victory were quite lucrative and powerful.

The famous Southern political historian and scholar Dr. V.O. Key said in 1950 without a doubt the most powerful figure in Alabama politics is the probate judge. In the days before television the best way to campaign for governor was to garner the support and endorsement of the probate judge in each county. Aspiring gubernatorial candidates would begin their statewide journey for the brass ring of Alabama politics by kissing the ring of the king of each county, the probate judge.