Candidates for judge discuss issues

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 25, 2016


Two Covington County men are seeking the office of circuit judge. There is no incumbent in the race, as Circuit Judge Ashley McKathan is retiring.

Both Probate Judge Ben Bowden and local attorney Corey Bryan would like to take his place. Both are Republicans subject to Tuesday’s party primary.

The Star-News asked the candidates a series of questions related to courts.


• What makes you qualified to be circuit judge of Covington County?

BOWDEN: First, my seven years as the probate judge is the primary qualification. After that, having served as a prosecutor for the drug task force and for the district attorney’s office for eight years gave me a lot of experience in the courtroom. After that, the 45 to 50 jury trials that I’ve done have really given me an opportunity to see other people handle the courtroom, and to be familiar with how trials work, over a broad spectrum of cases from medical malpractice to divorce to capital murder. These are essential things a person needs to understand to be able to manage a courtroom.

The two capital murder cases I tried were three weeks long. I’ve also handled a week-long jury trial as a circuit judge. Judge McKathan appointed me to handle a civil case that ended up going to trial. I handled it from striking a jury to getting a jury verdict.


BRYAN: Well, I’ve been practicing in circuit court for over 11 years. I was in the courtroom two weeks after I passed the bar exam. I serve as the attorney for Red Level; the prosecutor for Castleberry; and I have filled in as circuit judge, district judge and probate judge.

I specialize in handling all kinds of felony and criminal cases and appeals, and have handled divorce and child custody cases. These are all areas I’ve dealt with in one way or another in the past 11 years. I have defended, and also prosecuted civilly.


• What is the most pressing issue facing the court system?

BOWDEN: Funding – from top to bottom.

From an overall perspective, the circuit clerk’s funding is very tight. The funding to bring jury trials is very tight. The technology budget is very tight. If we don’t somehow get some General Fund relief, there are going to be difficult issues. What that really equates to is a delay in justice.

If you ask the public what their No. 1 complaint is, it would be that it takes too long to get a case resolved. I think instilling some confidence in the public that a reasonable way to resolve your dispute is through the court system is some concern.

If we had the funding for it, we could increase the use of technology and support staff and that would ease that a little bit. Also if we could somehow convince more people to do bench trials, or judge-alone trials, the cases would not be heard only once a month or at certain times. As circuit judge, I will try to make myself available to handle more cases as a judge-alone trial, as a good alternative in some cases.


BRYAN: Of course, we’ve had the sentencing standards modified because of overcrowding in our prisons. That’s having to be dealt with. I feel like we have to do things to help with overcrowding. However, there are folks that are a danger to society that need to be behind bars. Folks have had opportunities that have blown those opportunities. They need to be behind bars if they had their second chances and keep blowing those chances.

Divorce is prevalent. One of the things that concerns me is those who suffer more are the children when they are involved in divorce. There are things that can possibly be done I want to look into. It’s easier these days to get divorced than to get married. There are some things as a judge you can encourage to take place before divorces happen in your courtroom.

Civilly speaking, just like every other court in the state, want to move cases. I don’t want the docket to be clogged up. I’ll do whatever I can to speed cases along, and make sure cases are off the docket.


• Does the Legislature adequately fund the court system?

BOWDEN: It is adequate. Is it what we need to be as efficient as possible? No I don’t think so. We need resources – more staff, being able to call more juries. If we could get more juries, we could move cases more quickly.


BRYAN: There is definitely a problem with the funding of our court systems. My primary concern as a judge is when it starts affecting the efficiency of the justice system and quality. When it affects the personnel, for example bailiffs for the safety of courthouse, the clerk’s office for case files, the DA’s office.

One of the issues that has also come up is potentially losing judgeships. Definitely it’s an issue with underfunding the court system. Now you can’t get blood from a turnip, but something needs to be done to help the court system. The answer to that question? I don’t know.

• Does the Legislature adequately fund prisons?

BOWDEN: I think it’s important that a circuit judge understand his role in the bigger context of judgment. The prison system is not my responsibility as circuit judge. It’s my responsibility to sentence according to the law. I’m a big believer in the rehabilitative potential of prison time. It’s the no. 1 deterrent. You have to be able to use jail of some kind to administer justice.

If we are talking about violent offenders and protecting the public, we need to put as much resources as we need to keep those people locked away. For non-violent offenders, we need some mixture of local jail time and probation to see if we can’t get their attention.

BRYAN: No. In essence, overcrowding means that we don’t have enough facilities to hold the people we’re locking up. We don’t have the funds to take care of them and build more facilities. We have to figure out something that will adequately fund our prisons. Folks need to be in prison, need to be in prison. If there’s a problem with funding, we need to figure out some other ways to fund prisons. There is no need to release individuals who could cause harm those around us. It’s a public safety issue first and foremost.

• What is the most significant legal matter you personally handled?

BOWDEN: I would have to say a case I prosecuted early on as a captain in the Air Force, a shaken baby case, is the most significant. That was a very emotional, difficult case against an Air Force Academy graduate, a female graduate who shook her baby to death. I think about it all the time.

The two capital murder trials I prosecuted gave me the most experience with evidence, witnesses, and the jury – nuts and bolts experience in the courtroom that’s hard to get any other way until you are there two and a half weeks and still not done.

BRYAN: I can’t boil it down to one, I’ve handled murder cases; little contract disputes between two friends who had a falling out; and helped with estates of those who lost loved ones. One of the things I love about being a lawyer, is that folks are coming to see you when they are experiencing hardship in their lives. Every individual matter, every time you help out, you’re making life a little bit better.

I’ve prosecuted as well. Helping a victim out, getting justice, that’s fulfilling as well. From every point of view, it’s an honor to be able to help someone.

• What role, if any, does faith have in a judge’s work?

BOWDEN: I’m a Christian and I try to live my life by applying Christian principles. None of us are perfect and I’m certainly not perfect. I think that there is much to be gained from the Bible in how to treat people. That’s what the message of the Bible really is, other than the big message of salvation. The message of the Bible is about relationships, and how relate to one another. A judge has to deal with relationships in the parties that come before him.

Now there are occasions where your beliefs as a Christian will conflict with the law. I don’t believe in abortion on demand; it’s legal. If it’s a straight-up conflict, I think the judge must apply the law, even if it conflicts with what their religious beliefs are.

I had to face that very issue (as probate judge) as it relates to same-sex marriage and the issuance of marriage licenses, and after a lot of careful consideration, I believe I am following the law as it relates to that issue.

BRYAN: We all have some guiding principles in our life. There is some foundation that we’re building off of. I believe I’m very open with my faith. Jesus Christ is my lord and savior and his word is true. That guides every decision I make in my life in one way or another.

God invented justice. The Lord your God is a just god. He is the ultimate judge.

Christianity is intrinsically valued at that position. All wisdom, and discernment comes from God. I pray to him for help in deciding some of the cases. Education factors into it. But ultimately, I will seek Him as with any decision in my life.

• What is your personal view of the death penalty and how will that view affect the way you handle cases in your court?

BOWDEN: I have tried two capital murder cases, and one of defendants is on death row. So I am a proponent of the death penalty. One of the reasons those cases take so long to go from trial to execution is that mistakes are made in the course of those trials. You need a judge who knows how to handle cases so you don’t create error, and they don’t have to be retried over and over again.

Arguing to put another person to death was a pretty significant event in my life. I would never treat it lightly or in a cavalier way.

BRYAN: You know of course in Alabama, a jury gets to make a recommendation (on the death penalty), and the judge has the power to override the jury’s verdict. There are cases where the death penalty is warranted. It will depend upon the facts of each case, as you sit through the trial and listen to everything. Before it can be deemed capital murder, certain things are necessary. As a judge, until you hear facts, you can’t throw out death penalty. Anything involving child would push it over the edge to me. I will have to hear all evidence and weigh it out before I make a determination there.



• How much influence should a judge exercise in encouraging parties to settle a case before trial? How much would you influence that decision?

BOWDEN: I’m a believer that lawyers know their case, and know what to do with their case. It’s not my business if they want to settle or not. Occasionally, as a judge I have offered my opinion about how they ought to go about settling a case and they did. I think you can influence the result of the case just sharing with the lawyers what you see is going on. But I don’t believe in being heavy-handed about it. My job as a judge is to resolve cases. Where a judge can really make a difference is in keeping a case moving along. Sometimes it is only when someone faces a specter of having to go into a courtroom and prove or defend a case that they get to a point where they will resolve that case.

I was a certified mediator for the state bar program before I became probate judge. I believe in mediation for resolution, not so much through the skill of the mediator, but in forcing parties to get together, talk about the issues. Many times a case can be solved out of court. I think we should use all of those tools. But, but I don’t believe in forcing that on anybody.


BRYAN: Lot of times negotiations take place before it ever gets to the judge’s desk. By law, the judge has to approve the plea deal. As a judge, the buck would stop with me. If I feel as if there is a plea agreement that isn’t fair or just, I wouldn’t agree with it.

The docket’s overcrowded. But justice should never be compromised for efficiency. The bottom line is this, some cases just have to go to trial. But if every case went to trial, court system disaster. At the end of the day, if they want to be tried, give them a trial.

• Why did you choose the law as a career?

BOWDEN: I don’t like bullies and I sympathize with people who are in bad situations. A lawyer has an incredible opportunity to help people, an opportunity and ability to help people solve a problem unlike in any other profession I know of. I think that’s what a good circuit judge does – give people confidence he can help them solve their problems.

BRYAN: The law has always intrigued me. When I was in college, I had a professor who was a lawyer. It was a legal course. I spoke with him about what he did for a living. One of things that was always neat to me, was the ability he had to help people. Basically, what a lawyer is is a professional problem solver. That’s what most attracted me, the ability to make other peoples’ lives better.