It wasn’t until she was in her junior year of college at the University of North Alabama that Angela Dawson Terry decided that she would like to go into the legal field, or maybe to teach history on the professorial level.
The Hatton High alumus graduated from UNA in 1994, with a Bachelor of Arts degree, majoring in Political Science with double minors in Spanish and History. She could have gone either way, but the law won out. She made the decision during her final year in college, and it seems to have been the right course for her because she has excelled in the field.
“Once I decided on law, I had the opportunity to shadow Moulton Attorney, Bob Lang, as an intern for college credit. In doing so, I got to know the court system from watching Judge Philip Reich and Judge Randy Mullican,” said Terry.
She also clerked for Judge Reich in 1993 and later after graduation she would practice law in front of him for 10 years. “He had a big impact on me,” she recalled.
In August of 1995, five days before beginning law school, she married Shanon Terry, who is also a Lawrence County native. The couple said their vows on the third floor of the historic old courthouse on the square in Moulton, with Judge Mullican performing the nuptials. It was tough learning to be a wife while studying law, which pretty much consumes students who choose this field.
In 1995 when she attended law school, women made up only one-third of law school students. “Other than big cities, you didn’t see many female lawyers,” she pointed out. “I didn’t go to law school thinking of being a judge, maybe because at that time there were no Republican’s being elected to anything.”
On May 23, 1998, she graduated from Cumberland School of Law at Samford, with a Doctorate of Juris Prudence diploma to hang proudly on a wall. She’d worked hard for it and it was more than just a certificate showing she’d completed the required classes. The formalities meant a lot to her, they were a culmination of a lot of sleepless nights and stressful days. It was also her 26th birthday.
But there was one more hurdle to be crossed. The much dreaded bar exam. This is a three-day endurance test of sorts. Most law students are as tense as a violin string by this time. Angela was no exception. When the day arrived for the test in July, 1998, she felt butterflies, but she was as prepared as she’d ever been for anything. “I was on pins and needles,” she admits.
The test began on Monday morning and takes until Wednesday afternoon to complete. She was exhausted with the stress, now came the wait. It was excruciating. When the call came, she was at home in Hillsboro where the couple lived at the time. “Back then the examiners posted the results of the bar exam on the door of the Supreme Court building in Montgomery,” she explained. “Most people have to go there physically to check to see if they passed. Fortunately, I had friends close by who went to check for me. There was an overwhelming sense of relief when she called me back to let me know that I’d passed,” she laughed.
Her course was set now; she had only to secure a job with a local law firm, which was easily accomplished.
On February 25, 2000, the Terry’s welcomed their only child into the world. Ashley would become a touchstone, a bridge from the formality of court proceedings to the world of diapers and formula, things which Angela had never dealt with before. But it was a welcomed interlude, one where she could focus on something besides legal battles and court procedures which had been her world for the past 12 years. It also gave her a new prospective when dealing with parents in court. You can only know that kind of love when you’ve experienced it yourself.
By 2008, after she was established in the local legal world as someone with a great record at trial, she caught the attention of people who watch for things like that. She had worked hard and had earned a reputation for being fair, disciplined, honest and straightforward.
People started coming around to sound her out about the idea of accepting the nomination if one of the sitting judges decided to retire. “At that time I had no idea of what happens when a sitting judge retires,” she laughed. “What does happen is that the governor appoints someone to finish out the term of the retiring judge."
At the time, Bob Riley was governor. On January 9, 2009, Judge Philip Reich retired. Not long afterward, Judge Randy Mullican also decided to leave the bench. “It was then that I started giving this serious thought,” she said.
She got the call from Gov. Riley, himself. She’ll never forget that call. “Judge Mark Craig had been sworn in that day,” she recalled. “I just happened to be home with a sick child or I might not have been there to answer. He called personally, before the press conference, and instead of having his press secretary do it. I was impressed that he took the time to do that.”
She accepted, and the whirlwind began.
She had nine days to prepare for the biggest professional position she had ever attained. It helped that she knew people in the courthouse, at least she wouldn’t be walking into a building full of total strangers.
On Friday, March 2, 2009, Judge Mullican formally retired. His last official duty on the same day was to swear her in. Outside the tall windows, a snowstorm blew in from the west as history was made.
Angela Terry was the first female judge to be appointed in Lawrence County. If you think it was all smooth sailing you’d best think again. The pressure to do a good job weighed heavily on the young woman who had come up the ranks rather quickly, considering she was only 36 years old at the time.
What tilted the scales in her favor was the fact that she was accustomed to working with law enforcement and with the Department of Human Resources.
She realized that there were a lot of people with eyes on her. The weight of that responsibility was palatable. “The pressure came from knowing that if I didn’t do a good job it might be a long time before there was another female judge in this county,” she explained.
Because she has the ability to focus on the task at hand, as well as phenomenal organizational skills and is good with people from all walks of life, she did well. She credits her Judicial Assistant, Linda Bradford, for keeping her calendar and knowing what is going on in her office at all times, as well as Chief Juvenile Probation Officer Natasha Davis, who has been with her for over 11 years, for being such a reliable and dependable part of her team. Davis was recently promoted to the role following the retirement of Karen Lang, who served in the position for several years. The vacancy created by Lang’s retirement was filled by Tiffany Callahan, Juvenile Probation Officer. Another retiree, former Chief Probation Officer, Barbara Williams, who retired in 2012, played a key role in forming the team that has made up Terry’s staff. “I couldn’t do my job without them,” she said gratefully.
As Lawrence County District and Juvenile Judge, she presides over custody cases and determines the sentence if a crime is involved. In that capacity, she hears a lot of heartbreaking stories and sees them played out in court. “The best thing about being a judge is working with children, but it’s also the hardest part,” she said philosophically. “Working with DHR, sometimes I can’t see instant gratification, but I can see that there is a juvenile in trouble and the answer, among other options, maybe to place them on probation. That’s the human side of it,” she said.
“Then years later when they are adults they sometimes come up and tell me how grateful they are to have wound up in my court,” she said. “It’s gratifying.”
She enjoys presiding over cases and credits lawyers who come to court fully prepared for making her job, which is to protect the best interests of the child, easier to determine. She constantly takes notes and uses them to write up her orders. “If you are not going to get your child, I want you to know exactly why I made that decision,” she affirmed. She pours over these notes and case histories for hours and hours at times pacing the floor or sitting at her desk at home until the wee hours of the morning.
When people think about the legal process they often conjure up images of Perry Mason and dramatic eleventh hour confessions or picture a harried legal assistant running into the court room just in the nick of time with evidence to save the accused from the gallows. Rarely does that happen in real life. Trials are much more measured and carefully conducted so as to be dignified and orderly. “In the years since I have been licensed the Rules of Evidence and Procedure pretty much make sure there are not a lot of surprises,” said Judge Terry. “When I practiced law, we exchanged witness lists and exhibit lists before the trial.”
She advises that the crucial thing for lawyers just beginning their legal careers is to do their work ahead of time.
“I always tell young lawyers that the key to being a good lawyer is preparation,” she advised. “Never walk into court without being prepared!”
She has followed her own advice since she was in college, always being prepared in class as well as later on in her professional life.
Practicing law in a small town gave her flexibility. She remembers what it was like being a young lawyer herself, while raising a family and keeping up a home. “My daughter didn’t sleep through the night for the first year, sometimes I’d get to court with a little spit up on my jacket. But there was an upside to it, in that I could take her to school and schedule my time to pick her up, then log into my computer at home and finish my work after her bedtime. This was our routine from her birth until about the third grade. I could attend her school functions and go on field trips, see her plays, things like that. I might have to put in some extra effort to make up for lost time but it worked out.”
It might have been due to the fact that she read so much to Ashley, who could read herself at an early age, that she devoured books and a passion was kindled in both mother and child for more and more reading material. That shared love of the written word is still a bright light and a driving force in their lives. “I think reading helped me with my writing,” she said. Sometimes her orders exceed 20 pages. She is very detail oriented and makes sure that what she writes is easily understood by laymen parents and by older teenagers whose lives these orders affect.
Her professional life has proceeded to give her wisdom beyond her years, judges have always been respected and admired, and she is no exception. Her private life has changed considerably, though, since Ashley left home. “I had a very hard time when she went to college,” Judge Terry confessed. “She graduated a year early and started UA when she was just 17.”
Ashley first thought that she would go to nearby UNA, “But I think her dad’s love for the University of Alabama rubbed off on her,” her mom laughed. “She was awarded a Presidential scholarship. I had mixed emotions and I dreaded her moving out that entire summer.”
“I was so proud of her, but also worried about her and about having an empty nest,” the Judge admitted. “I knew she had worked hard and was fulfilling her dream. I cried every time she went back to Tuscaloosa or we headed home that first year. I would hold it together until we reached the overpass at Northport. He was ready. He would look at me and I would lose it. He would just drive. Although I had a demanding and fulfilling job it was no substitute for being a mom. I would tell anyone that is going through this that it is tough, but it gets better.”
Once she adjusted to the empty nest she joined a book club and became involved in other activities which she has thoroughly enjoyed. “I always wanted to be home at night, if possible when she was home, now, here we are with her very happy with her college career. She is involved in a sorority and many organizations. My husband has a career he loves and we are about to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. God has been very good to us!”
Ashley is now in her senior year of college at the University of Alabama, where she will graduate with double majors in Communication Studies and History. Last summer she had the opportunity to study abroad in Oxford, England. Currently she is finishing up a summer internship with the Secretary of State. She plans to attend law school and hopes to work as a civil rights lawyer. Her parents are understandably proud of her, and encourage her to follow her heart.
Shanon is employed at Bunge as its North American Operations Manager. He also serves on the Lawrence County Board of Education. The Terrys attend Moulton Baptist Church. Shanon has been her rock over the years, always seeming to know instinctively when she needs some quiet space to transition from work to home. He continues, as he has throughout their marriage, to support Angela in her every endeavor. “He understands what I do, and he knows my moods,” she said.
With Ashley away, Angela is home a little more than she once was. You can usually find her curled up with a book of some sort, historical fiction, or popular novels, whatever she hears good reviews about. Her overwhelming passion for reading led to her fascination with Alabama author, Harper Lee, who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird.
So much did she admire the Monroeville, Alabama native and her work, Terry decided to visit her hometown. “I have been to Monroeville numerous times over the years,” she said. “Several years ago I was able to attend the play that is performed on the lawn and inside the historic courthouse. The menu is always the same, fried catfish and lemonade,” she laughed.
Unfortunately she never met Harper Lee. “I was in attendance at the University of Alabama when the inaugural inductees were admitted into the Alabama Writer’s Hall of Fame a few years ago. It was rumored that she would come, but she did not,” lamented Terry.
However, Terry did manage to collect some cherished mementoes of the author and copies of the book which she displays proudly in her office.
Her favorite passage in To Kill a Mockingbird is the part where Atticus delivers his closing remarks. In the movie he speaks the passage in deep senatorial tones that only Gregory Peck could have delivered, about how Thomas Jefferson said that all men are created equally, “But then he went on to give examples of how we are not equal,” said Terry.
The passage reminds us of things we should always be mindful of, like this phrase written for Atticus by Harper Lee, “But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal—there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court. Our courts have their faults, as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal.”
She is always conscious of this phrase when making decisions, listening to lawyers as they give their summations, and writing her own orders, for it is this concept to which she has devoted her professional life, and from which many young lawyers can learn from a profound lesson from the past.
In her legal career Judge Angela Terry has gone above and beyond anything she could ever have imagined. She is one of Lawrence County’s proud female professionals and continues to dedicate her professional career to insuring that children and young adults have a voice in court.