After 40 years on bench, venerable jurist ‘retiring’
By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
After more than 40 years of hearing cases in Atmore Municipal Court, Escambia County Circuit Court and the occasional out-of-town courtroom, Judge Bert Rice is retiring. Well, sort of.
Rice, who joined the circuit court bench in 2007 after Judge Joseph B. Brogden retired, presided over his first case as Atmore’s municipal judge on November 21, 1977. His tenure on the county’s highest court officially ended January 14, 2019, but that doesn’t mean the venerable jurist will be riding off into the judicial sunset.
“I was officially retired two weeks ago today,” Rice said during a January 28 interview with Atmore News. “But the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (Tom Parker) immediately appointed me what we call a ‘retired-active judge.’ That means I can still do everything, just not as much.”
With the appointment, Rice joins 60 other judges across the state who serve in a retired-active capacity to help the state’s 145 circuit jurists whittle the size of their respective dockets. And he won’t be presiding over just minor matters.
“My docket won’t be near as much, but I do have a capital murder case in March,” he said. “I’ll be handling cases in Escambia County; I’ll be handling cases in Baldwin County, and I’ll be handling cases in Lee County, in the Auburn-Opelika area.”
The third location might seem a little far-removed from Atmore, but Rice doesn’t mind.
“I have two sons that live up there, and a new grandbaby,” he smiled. “So, I told them I would be available for appointments up there.”
The judge will be honored by the Escambia County Bar Association at a retirement reception this Thursday, January 31, at the county courthouse in Brewton. The farewell party, at which Rice will be “roasted” by his judicial peers and local lawyers, will take place from 2 to 4 p.m.
Rice pointed out that any success he enjoyed as a judge was the result of having a quality support staff.
“I am so blessed with the staff people over the years who have helped me,” he explained. “The people who have assisted me through the years as court clerks and various roles of support staff have always made me look better than I am, and I am extremely appreciative. I can’t start naming them because I’ll leave somebody out.”
He did name the leader of one of his strongest support bases.
“Most of all, I am thankful for my family (two sons and a daughter) and my dear wife, Jan (with whom he will celebrate his 48th anniversary this summer), for their — at times — patience and understanding,” said Rice. “Over the years, there have been a lot of times when court would run really long and supper, or whatever, would get missed. I am especially thankful to my wife. I couldn’t do this without her love, her support and her encouragement. When I go home each night, I know the foundation is solid.”
He said at the top of the list of changes he has seen on his 40 years of passing judgment on those who break the law, is the now-rampant use of illegal drugs and abuse of prescription medications.
“On the criminal side, back when I started, we would have some alcohol cases, then slowly marijuana,” he recalled. “How times have changed. Drugs have gone from alcohol and marijuana to the designer drugs — meth, crack and so many more. These more powerful drugs destroy people’s minds, souls and bodies more (than others).
“Not that the others don’t — alcohol can kill — but especially meth, crack and heroin. They are so destructive to the person and to their extended family. They’re so addictive and so hard to get off of, and there’s just so much of it.”
Another major change is the rapid evolution of technology, in warehousing the tons of paper generated on a continuing basis by the state’s various court systems. Rice, who grew into adulthood before computers replaced typewriters and carbon copies, has not only embraced the technological improvements; he has helped further them.
The local judge has served for several years as a member of the state court system’s technology commission and has chaired the commission for the past three-plus years. In that capacity, he helped plan and oversee the conversion of the massive volume of paper court documents into digital data, the only such state-level data storage system in the U.S.
“Alabama is the only state in the nation that has all its state court documents digitized,” he said. “Alabama is the Silicon Valley of that. It has been a real privilege to be a part of that, and I may continue to do it. I’m not sure how much we have right now, but a few years ago we had digitized half a billion pages, which is about 17 miles of shelf space.”
He admits that no document storage system is completely secure but pointed out that extra precautions have been taken to prevent the loss of the state’s court records.
“Is it perfect? Well, they said the Titanic wouldn’t sink,” he explained. “But (the digitized system) has a protection level higher than with your bank account. It’s Microsoft-managed and off-loaded every night to two or three locations off-site. It’s an interesting system and it works really well.”
When asked how he wanted people to remember his tenure as a judge, he reflected a few seconds before answering.
“How do I want to be remembered? Wow. It’s hard to talk about yourself,” he said. “I would want to be thought of like Judge (Douglas S.) Webb (who was a circuit judge here for 22 years), whose picture hangs in the courtroom. I’ve referred to him many times.
“I thought he was fair; he knew the law; he loved the Lord, and he could temper justice with mercy. Justice says, ‘hang him;’ mercy says ‘don’t.’ You have to weigh it. It’s like Cinderella; the shoe just won’t fit every foot.”
Rice isn’t sure how many more years he will continue to weigh evidence and render judgment. Probably as long as he can make a positive contribution to the system he has served for more than four decades.
“I’m not required to handle every case that comes along,” he said. “But there is a heavy caseload for this county, and I feel that I can still be useful. It’s like Judge (Bradley) Byrne (Sr., who served 27 years as a circuit judge until his 2014 retirement); he’s in his fifth year with (Escambia County) Drug Court. Some of it depends on health, but it’s hard to know when it’s time to not do it anymore.”