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Justice Is Truly Blind in Judge Tony Cothren's Alabama Courtroom

June 19, 1997|The Times of London

BESSEMER, Ala. — Two peeved customers stomped out of Judge Tony Cothren's courthouse here, feeling they had wasted their time. The couple had claimed they were underprivileged.

"The fella came in hobbling like an old man and his woman was wearing the oldest, dirtiest clothes she owned," recalled the judge, laughing. "Didn't do them no good, of course."

Cothren is blind--the first sightless judge in Alabama. He is also notable for being a Republican, which in a traditionally Democrat state has ensured him a bumpy first few months on the bench.

In Jefferson County Circuit Court recently in this forlorn town, Cothren heard a stream of domestic disputes. He dispensed justice with a God-fearing rigor, fixing his glaucoma-ridden eyes on those who stood before him amid the wreckage of their lives.

The original "Blind Judge," the sightless 18th century Bow Street magistrate Sir John Fielding, was reputed to know scores of London footpads simply from their voices. Cothren, 47, shares that gift for vocal recognition, but the voices he hears are the drawls of troubled Alabamians. Bessemer's crime rate is one of America's worst.

The theme of his verdicts is a steely self-discipline and a demand for individual responsibility.

A divorcing couple, accompanied by the woman's mother, were rebuked for failing to put their small children first. "I want those little girls in church every Sunday," ordered the judge.

An out-of-work house painter, involved in a family dispute, tried to argue with the court. Cothren returned his barrage with interest.

"What I'm sayin' to you is this," he thundered. And the man quelled.

Over a lunchtime sandwich, he acknowledged that sight can influence a judge--the witness who sweats and fingers his collar, for instance.

"Sometimes, to see the sorrow can be a wrong influence," he said. "Colleagues tell me there is nothing harder than looking into the tears of a woman and telling her that her home must be sold."

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