“That is definitely the most rewarding part of being the District Judge. When we deal with juvenile cases and we reach a point where I think I’ve done what is best for that child,” McDowell said. “When you know you’ve done the best you can do for a child, that is why I enjoy juvenile court.”
McDowell qualified for re-election this spring without an opponent in the Democratic Primary. With no Republican opponent, she will begin a third term in January.
“It’s a humbling experience to be privileged to serve multiple terms,” McDowell said. “It’s humbling in two ways. One is that nobody chose to run against me, and second, that I’m so lucky to do something I absolutely love to do.”
In Alabama, District Judges have more one-on-one interaction with the public than other courts. McDowell hears more than 5,000 traffic tickets each year, along with misdemeanor criminal offenses, juvenile court, evictions, civil court where the amount in dispute is $10,000 or less, pre-indictment felony work and small claims court, known informally as the “People’s Court.”
McDowell works to make sure individuals in her court understand why they are present and how the court process works.
“I begin every court explaining why people are there and always tell folks if they have any questions, to make sure they ask because it can be confusing,” McDowell said. “I don’t want anyone to leave not knowing what is expected of them and what they need to do to complete the requirements of court.”
Although McDowell sees a large number of Hispanics in District Court, she said problems with language barriers have declined in recent years.
“We used to see more language problems, and it seemed to be more with people who spoke dialects as opposed to those who spoke Spanish,” McDowell said. “We sometimes had trouble finding interpreters, but now it’s very rare that someone comes into court and can’t communicate.”
When judges from neighboring counties have conflicts, they often turn to McDowell to travel to their county and preside over the case. During her 12 years in office, she has heard cases in Lawrence, Morgan, Madison, Lauderdale, Colbert, Marion, Winston and Walker counties.
Her office has three employees, including Judicial Assistant Paula Mullens and Juvenile Probation Officers Sylvester Scott and Kevin Strickland.
When McDowell was first elected in 2000, her move to the District Judge’s Office was a short one, as she already worked down the hall in the Franklin County District Attorney’s Office.
“I worked 16-and-a-half years in the D.A.’s Office and was in private practice in Red Bay for two years after I graduated from law school. I did most of my work in District Court and always wanted to be District Judge,” McDowell said.
McDowell graduated from the University of Alabama School of Law in 1982, after receiving her undergraduate degree in accounting. She and her husband Danny, a Russellville attorney, have two children, Emma and Duncan. Her parents, James and Marjorie Bohannon, live in East Franklin.
Emma is a sophomore at Alabama majoring in biology. Duncan is a senior at Russellville High School where he will graduate this spring as Salutatorian.
“They don’t plan on going into law. Duncan wants to pursue a degree in chemical engineering, and Emma is pre-med,” McDowell said. “I just want them to do what they will be happy with. I certainly enjoy law, but that doesn’t mean they would.”
When it comes to appointing attorneys for criminal defense, McDowell’s policy is to appoint local attorneys who want to do criminal work. She expressed her appreciation to the Franklin County attorneys who regularly practice in her court.
“I feel like we have a good relationship, and I hope they know they can always work with me, and they seem comfortable with our court schedule,” McDowell said. “If they have a conflict on their calendars, they know they can talk to me and work out their schedule.”
A judge’s responsibilities often include after-hours bond hearings or search warrant applications, but McDowell said her family has gotten used to her schedule.
“The kids have both been real supportive of what I do because they don’t remember much of the time when I wasn’t judge,” McDowell said. “As for Danny, he is also very understanding and supportive of my tenure as a judge.”