Alabama Probate Court
In recognition of Black History Month and the upcoming 2024 election cycle, we sat down with Judge James Tatum, a member of CSSE and current Probate Court Judge in Bullock County, AL to recognize the critical role that Black election officials and law enforcement play in our democracy and keeping our elections safe and secure.
Can you describe your current or past role?
I was a police officer for 25 years and, for the last three years, I was a patrol captain. The chief of police and his or her officers are charged with the protection and security of municipal elections.
I have three years of experience dealing with municipal elections as far as staffing officers to make sure that the polling precincts are secure, that traffic is flowing, and that the poll workers and the voters are protected. In my current role as probate judge, I serve as the chief election official for Bullock County. There are 67 counties in the state of Alabama. The probate judge plays a role in every aspect of an election — municipal, county, state, and federal. The probate judge serves on the canvassing board as well, which also includes the county sheriff and the county circuit clerk. Those three entities play a role in the election process in the state of Alabama.
With respect to the Black experience in America and your being a member of CSSE, can you elaborate on the importance of ensuring that our elections are free, fair, and secure?
It wasn’t until the 1965 Voting Rights Act, signed by President Lyndon Baines Johnson, that every American secured the right to vote. Fast-forward several years later to June 25, 2013, the Supreme Court issued a ruling for Shelby County v. Holder that struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act. If Congress were to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, that would put the teeth back into the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
On a professional note and a personal note, I think it is a good idea to have the Justice Department looking over certain communities’ shoulders to ensure that the election process is going to be carried out in a manner where every citizen will have the right to vote. When the Court decided Shelby County v. Holder in 2013, that’s when a lot of states started enacting different voting laws that would prohibit some people from having that right to vote.
As a member of the Committee for Safe and Secure Elections, I feel honored and humbled to be a part of a group that is trying to shine a light on people’s rights that are being infringed upon. It’s imperative that we ensure that the election process is secure, free, and fair, and that everybody will have the right to vote.
Do you see a need for more Black representation in your field?
I always want to see equal representation. There are 67 counties in the state of Alabama and 68 state probate judges — Jefferson County has two probate judges. If you look at the racial breakdown, there are 10 African American probate judges in the state of Alabama. According to the last census report, Alabama is composed of 26.8% African Americans and 68.9% Caucasians. If you look at that breakdown out of 68 probate judges, and there are only 10 African Americans, that’s about 15% representation. It does not equate to the representation of African Americans in the state of Alabama based on the population. Obviously, the citizens are going to choose who they want to represent them. That’s the way it’s supposed to work. But yes, on a personal note, I would like to see more representation as far as African Americans serving as probate judges.
Can you share some of your proudest accomplishments in your field and highlight specific actions you have taken to support and advance democracy?
I was a police officer from 1987 to 2012. I became the Bullock County probate judge in January 2013. But in my role as a public official, as a police officer, the proudest accomplishment for me is that any difficult task that was put before me and my team, we carried each and every one out. I’m very proud of that.
I feel the same about my role as a probate judge. I presided or administered 18 elections in 10 years, and we got it right every time. So I’m very proud of that because the election process is the one time that all citizens in a community, in a state, in a nation, we can all rise up and speak and choose who our leaders are going to be. When that’s done without any type of shenanigans, without any type of hiccups, without any type of interference, I’m always happy to see that. It doesn’t make a difference who wins as long as the people’s voice is heard. That’s paramount in our nation. And if you look at us out of all the nations in this world, there’s none like America because America was founded on an idea. It’s imperative that we carry out the wishes of our founding fathers. And when it is other leaders’ time to serve, it’s very paramount that they carry out those duties to build upon our democracy.
Do you have any other thoughts that you would like to share about Black History Month?
Frederick Douglass once said, “If there is no struggle there is no progress.”
Black History Month is truly paramount. Black history is American history and when this month was established, it was a time to celebrate that African Americans are very much American. We are part of this, this nation. When you have leaders to try to say, well, you know, “you cannot talk about slavery” or “you can’t talk about the history of making one race” — history is history. I’m of the opinion that no matter what, it should be told and it should be taught. I just feel strongly that all aspects of history should be taught in public schools.