Toles reflects on past 25 years as judge

Published 12:26 am Sunday, December 23, 2007

A jury trial in the basement of the judge’s house — today it seems comical, even illegal, but it wasn’t that unusual when Justice Court Judge Mary Lee Toles took the bench 25 years ago. Sitting on a barstool, the veteran judge heard several cases from the basement of her Bluebird Drive home.

“The county didn’t provide a courthouse back then,” she said. “We had to have court somewhere.”

A lot has changed in the court system since then, but one thing has remained a constant — Toles’ fairness on the bench. When she steps down as judge later this month, the justice court will lose a wealth of experience and knowledge.

Email newsletter signup

“With Toles leaving, it is the passing of an era,” Judge Charlie Vess said. “She is the last of the first group of judges who was here when the system changed. We will lose a lot of experience when she leaves.”

Toles first took the bench in 1982 after being appointed by the board of supervisors. The judge serving in her district had died and then-alderman Phillip West asked her if she would consider filling his shoes.

“I had been considering running for some office at that point,” Toles said. “So I told West I would take it. I had no long-term plans for it at the time.”

When Toles first accepted the job, the justice court was under the old fee system. Judges were paid per case they heard.

“I think we got $10 for marrying people, $15 for every civil case and $10 for every criminal case,” she said. “So back then, we stayed as busy as we could. Judges were always hoping to get a lot of work.

“We were supposed to get cases in our district, but I usually didn’t. Some state troopers would shop around for the judges they liked. There was one judge who made so much more money than the rest of us. He heard a lot of cases.”

In 1984, the justice court system underwent a radical makeover. The fee system was abandoned and the Legislature extended more regulations for judges.

“It was definitely a change for the better,” she said. “The county provided us with offices and we were no longer required to collect fees ourselves.”

Under the old system, judges collected fees themselves and by law were supposed to report the money as income. Toles said it was common for some judges not to report all of the money.

With the fee system gone, judges were paid a fixed salary. Cases were also assigned to judges out of a central office.

After finishing her appointed term, Toles decided to run for the position.

“At that point, a lot of things had changed for the better,” she said. “The change in the system made the job more appealing. I wanted to have a full term in office, so I ran and won.”

After serving her first term, Toles decided to run again because she felt she was “doing some good.”

“I started to see the worth in the job,” she said. “It was always about doing the right thing. My prayer was always about wisdom. I always tried to hear the cases fairly. Even if I ruled against someone, they usually felt I had given them a fair shake.”

Most of the changes Toles has seen in the system have been for the better, but one, however, seems to bother her. When she first took the bench, speeding violations were $35. Toles said that same ticket costs about $175 today.

“The Legislature keeps upping ticket fines,” she said. “I guess the money has to come from somewhere, but all those added fees and taxes really make the ticket expensive.”

After spending a quarter of a century as a judge, Toles said she has seen her share of interesting cases. Some were funny, others were heartbreaking.

“There was one pretrial hearing that I will never forget,” she said. “Two people were accused of setting a house on fire and killing two people. It was so horrendous, so mind boggling. What made it so difficult was that the only witness was a small child. She was very limited in her ability to articulate what she saw. I had more trouble with that case than anything else I did. I’ve thought about it a lot since then. I sent it to the grand jury and they were both convicted of murder, so I guess I made the right decision.”

There were some lighter moments for Toles as well. She told the story of a young couple who asked her to marry them. They specified that they wanted to be married on U.S. 61 South.

“I thought I was meeting them there and going to someone’s house for the ceremony,” she said. “But they wanted me to marry them in the back of my car. I thought it was so bizarre. When I finished marrying them, the guy said ‘I’m heading back to New Orleans’ and the girl said ‘I’m going back home then.’ Two months later, they were back wanting an annulment.”

As Toles’ career on the bench progressed, she developed a reputation for being fair and just.

Vess said Toles’ fairness on the bench was her greatest strength.

“She was not an advocate for either side,” he said. “She was straight down the middle with everyone and that’s how it’s supposed to be. She is so well respected across the state for her decision-making ability.”

Toles’ last day in office is Dec. 31 and though she will miss the job, she was adamant that it was time to move on.

“I’ve always believed you need to go out with class,” she said. “You don’t wait until they kick you out. I almost didn’t run last term, and I made up my mind then that this would be my last. I just want to enjoy life now.”