(Updated) Cullman Judge Kim Chaney announces retirement

The Honorable Judge Kim Chaney (W.C. Mann for The Cullman Tribune)

LATEST: https://www.cullmantribune.com/2020/02/19/update-formal-ethics-complaint-preceded-chaneys-retirement-from-district-court/

Updated 2-18-20 5:25 p.m.

CULLMAN, Ala. – Cullman County District Judge Kim Chaney of the 32nd Judicial Circuit, State of Alabama, on Tuesday announced his retirement from the court after 27 years on the bench. Chaney sent a letter to the court announcing his retirement, effective Feb. 15, 2020.

Chaney’s career includes a number of achievements, including:

  • Sworn in for first term in office, 1993
  • The longest-serving district judge in Cullman County
  • In 2018 became the longest-serving district court judge in Alabama
  • Headed Cullman County’s Juvenile and Drug Court programs
  • Helped start the Cullman County Community Corrections program
  • Helped found the Boot Camp Wilderness program for delinquent youth
  • Founding member of the Cullman County Human Trafficking Task Force
  • Served as president of the Alabama Juvenile Judges’ Association
  • Served as president of the Alabama District Judges’ Association
  • Served as president of the Alabama Association of Drug Court Professionals
  • Recipient of the Howell Heflin Award for exemplary service to the Court Parole program
  • People Against a Littered State (PALS) Governor’s Award
  • 2001 Cullman Times Distinguished Citizen of the Year
  • 2011 Cullman High School Distinguished Citizen
  • 2013 Lions Club Chester Freeman Service to Others Award
  • 2016 Cullman County Chamber of Commerce Emma Marie Edelman Award
  • 2019 accepted Alabama Children’s Policy Council Award of Excellence on behalf of the Cullman County Children’s Policy Council, in his capacity as Juvenile Court Judge

Taking the oath for the last time

When Chaney was sworn in for his last term in office, he said, “Being a district judge has been one of the greatest honors of my life.”

He recounted how the court has changed over the years of his career, and shared memories from his childhood around his parents’ store, Chaney’s Seed and Feed, in west Cullman.

Of his upbringing, Chaney said, “My family got dirty for a living; they worked hard for their living.  On the loading dock, I learned hard work, and I also learned how to be honest and fair with people.  From my parents, I learned about the Lord.  Pretty good combination.”

Chaney closed by saying, “This community has been very good to us.  It’s a tremendous place to live.  And with your continued support, and prayer, I’m going to work hard every day and make sure that Cullman County is a safe place and a good place to live, work and raise our families.”

Advocacy for child safety and truth in sentencing

In his roles with the Juvenile Court, Children’s Policy Council and Human Trafficking Task Force, Chaney was an advocate for child safety, working to put on the annual Safe Kids Expo and writing on the issue of internet safety.

In 2019, Chaney told The Tribune, “In my day, it was the man in the van with candy luring children; today that man is in the bedroom of your child on their game system, in the palm of their hand on their cell phone or tablet,” and laid out advice for keeping children safe, available at www.cullmantribune.com/2019/03/17/judge-kim-chaney-talks-internet-safety-for-parents/.

Of the Safe Kids Expo, Chaney said, ““We wanted a focus on children’s safety, and we wanted to get all the folks who participate in that and child advocates together in one place.  So we came up with the idea of the Safe Kids Expo in 1993 and, at that time, it was an ID thing. We actually came and they took Polaroid pictures of kids; we had booklets that we gave parents.  

“And then we have everybody who is involved in safety issues with children: education, DHR, Cullman Caring for Kids, Brooks’ Place, everybody in one place to come, that had booths, that would come hand out safety information to make sure children are safe.

“We expanded to law enforcement.  We had law enforcement come; they were very eager to come and participate.  And then, of course, we had first responders who wanted to start coming, so (kids) would be less afraid of the vehicles (and) they would understand what firemen do.  Then we had fire safety brought into it. Then we had ambulances come, because we wanted to make sure that those children understood those roles.

“So, basically, it’s just all child advocates who are concerned about safety issues with children; it’s a place for them to come in one place.”

Chaney was the primary spokesman for Cullman’s court staff when, in 2017, he addressed a conference of local officials including Cullman County’s legislative delegation on the subject of sentencing.

Challenging regulations that allow the Alabama Department of Corrections to bypass local courts’ sentences and let inmates go early, Chaney said, “About three or four years ago, the Legislature passed a law about sentencing guidelines for criminal defendants who are sentenced to prison.  We’re all about trying to give people chances to do better.  A lot of people are addicted; a lot of people have mental health issues that we try to work with.  But every so often, there are folks that need to go to prison; because my job is to make this a safe place to live and raise your family.

“The thing that bothers me about the new sentencing guidelines is that judges have absolutely no say how long somebody goes when we sentence them to prison.  And I’m here to tell you that if we have someone who was sentenced to 20 years in prison, once they leave Cullman County the Department of Corrections can release them any time they want to.  I have people I sentenced to prison for seven years, who were back in Cullman County in 60 days.”

Shadow of doubt

In October 2017, a unanimous vote by the Alabama Ethics Commission found probable cause to charge that Chaney had violated state ethics laws, after Cullman attorney Thomas Drake II filed a complaint alleging that Chaney had engaged in nepotism by directing potentially lucrative court cases to his son Alex Chaney and his son’s law firm Berry, Berry, Little, Bruner and Chaney.

Chaney’s attorneys, Mark White and Augusta Dowd, of Birmingham’s White, Arnold & Dowd P.C., responded a short time later, “This firm has the privilege of representing Honorable Kim J. Chaney with issues taken up by the Ethics Commission. Judge Chaney has served the state of Alabama honorably and with distinction and great integrity for the past 25 years, and his character and integrity will prevail in these challenging times. Today’s decision by the Ethics Commission is nothing more than a probable cause finding to be followed by more of an in-depth investigation.  We have full confidence that when the true and full facts are disclosed, Judge Chaney’s name will be completely cleared, and he will continue in his service to the state of Alabama.”

What happens next

Local judges and court officials met Tuesday afternoon to review Chaney’s docket to ensure all currently docketed cases are processed in a timely manner until a new judge is appointed by Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey.  

“We’ve been in contact with the governor’s office about the process,” said Cullman County Republican Party Chairman Steve Cummings. “Candidates for appointment must register with the Office of Appointments. The State will conduct background checks and possible early interviews. The Cullman County Republican Executive Committee will also weigh in on Judge Chaney’s replacement.”

He continued, “I have been contacted by six possible candidates so far, and they’ll come before our next scheduled meeting on March 5. Our plan is to vote by secret ballot and send the top three in a letter to the governor. Many factors will affect Gov. Ivey’s choice; our committee’s recommendation will just be a part of the decision-making process. Nathan Lindsey inside the Gov’s office informed me they have several judges statewide that are stepping down so they will be really busy for the next couple of months.”

Concluded Cummings, “Judge Kim Chaney has been a valuable asset to our community for the past 27 years. He has served the people of Cullman County with distinction, with a human touch and with a sense of humor. If you’ve ever seen him in action you’ll agree. The judge that follows him will have some big shoes to fill.”

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W.C. Mann