Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle, longtime Judge Sybil Cleveland in dispute over city court’s direction, leadership

HUNTSVILLE, Ala --  Mayor Tommy Battle and longtime Municipal Court Judge Sybil Cleveland are in a dispute over the leadership and direction of the busy city court.

Cleveland contends Battle is violating state law by not naming a presiding judge for the municipal court, a year after the retirement of longtime presiding Municipal Court Judge Sonny Rodenhauser. The court has operated since Rodenhauser’s retirement with Cleveland and a part-time judge.

Cleveland estimates the court, which focuses on misdemeanor and traffic offenses in Huntsville, handles around 1,200 cases every month.

Cleveland began working as a Municipal Court judge in 1999. She maintains that because there is more than one judge currently working for the court, the law requires a presiding judge to be named. Cleveland said Battle has the authority to name the presiding judge and she is qualified for the position. She points out the Huntsville City Council has renewed her contract to serve on the bench multiple times.

But Battle has declined to do so. The mayor says the city’s legal department believes as long as there are not at least two full-time judges, a presiding judge selection is unnecessary.

Cleveland told WHNT News 19 the decision has left city court personnel without leadership or a department head. She says that means personnel issues have not been addressed.

Cleveland has said the issue of selecting a presiding judge, which carries a $10,000 to $12,000 pay boost because of expanded duties, was raised with Battle before Rodenhauser’s retirement.

Cleveland was asked by WHNT News 19 if she thought she was being discriminated against. She said that she couldn’t say that was the case currently, but suggested time would tell.

Battle denied any discrimination is involved in his decision regarding a presiding judge.

Battle says the issue has just been raised by Cleveland in the past few months. Battle said the timing is strange because the city has embarked on an overhaul of the Municipal Court. Thursday evening the Huntsville City Council added two judges to the court and Battle said he expects the court will add expanded night court and Saturday court sessions.

Battle also said he plans to interview all three judges in the coming weeks and select a presiding judge. Battle stressed there is a difference between the effective work of a judge on the bench and the administrative duties of a presiding judge.

The mayor said while the city has no interest or right to interfere with the court’s judicial function, it does have a role in establishing how the court is administered.

Cleveland said the failure to address the presiding judge issue has threatened the independence of the city judiciary. She said that problem was made clear during the city’s planning of the court overhaul.

Cleveland said judicial personnel were not consulted or briefed on changes to the court, instead it was handled by the mayor’s office and the Huntsville City Council.