When Tim Mitchell was elected probate judge of Marshall County in 1988, he was the youngest probate judge in the county’s history at the age of 29.
He will retire upon Andrea LeCroy, his longtime chief clerk, being sworn in as the new probate judge. When he does, he will have served as probate judge for 5 six-year terms or 30 years. No other probate judge in the history of the county has served more than 2 terms.
“I’ve been blessed,” Mitchell said. “I thank the people of Marshall County for allowing me to serve.”
His career at the Courthouse actually goes much longer than his 30 years in office. An Albertville native, he graduated from Jacksonville State University with a degree in business management and accounting. At the age of 24, he became the chief clerk in the tax assessor’s office. He worked in that job more than 5 years.
Some friends encouraged him to run for probate judge that first time in 1988.
It was a “free shot” for him essentially. County employees running for a county office nowadays have to take a leave of absence to do so. That was not the case in 1988.
“I had to take some vacation days off and some days without pay,” Mitchell said. “But I still had my job if I got beat.”
Lemois Miller was the incumbent probate judge. Two other men also jumped into the race. Frank Reed had been the elected county school superintendent and was one of them. The other was Wayne Warren, who’d been in the runoff with Miller the previous race.
“I finished first in the Democratic primary and got in the runoff with Frank Reed,” Mitchell said. “My age – I was only 28 – became an issue. My opponent said I was too young to do the job.”
But Mitchell had some friends working on his behalf and he prevailed in the runoff.
For most Democrats in those days, that would have been the end of it. All county elected officials were Democrats and the Republican tide in county politics was still years away on the horizon.
“But I had a Republican opponent,” Mitchell said. “We spent a lot of time and a lot of money educating voters that they needed to vote one more time in the general election if they wanted me to win the office.
“My Republican opponent was David Skidmore,” Mitchell said. “David and I are good today, but we didn’t know one another then. And you have to remember that Papa Bush, a Republican, was pretty popular in Marshall County at the time.”
The voters went for Mitchell in 1988, however, and he won his first term.
He was a Democrat then and he never changed. He and coroner Marlon Killion are both retiring this year. They are the last of the county’s old-time Democratic officeholders.
Various challengers opposed Mitchell through the years. He never lost an election. He won new terms twice without opposition. There have been at least 6 County Commission chairmen during his long tenure as probate judge: Charles Wright, Neal Fossett, Dean Strickland, Billy Cannon, Doug Fleming and James Hutcheson.
He and Neal Fossett are now neighbors.
The probate judge’s job has changed significantly over the years. In the early days, it was primarily an administrative job.
“We had hearings, but nothing like we have now,” Mitchell said. There are hearings just about every day in probate court nowadays.
“The population is aging,” he said. “We do a lot of guardianships for aging adults.”
Mental health commitments are a particularly troublesome issue in probate court these days.
“The state has closed all the state mental hospitals,” Mitchell said. “They have shifted the burden onto the county and our local hospitals.”
Without the 10-bed mental unit at Marshall Medical Center North, Mitchell would almost have no options as far as places to send mental patients in need of crisis intervention.
“There are 3 regional mental health units, but they only have 16 beds each,” he said. “They can pick and choose which patients they want to take. I can tell you how bad it is. We recently had an individual stay 82 days at Marshall North while they looked for somewhere to send him.”
He said guardianship and mental cases are 2 big issues for the probate office and he doesn’t see either getting better any time soon.
“There’s really only one happy time in probate court,” Mitchell said. “That’s adoptions. People bring their families and it’s a celebration.”
The probate judge serves as the chief election officer in Marshall County. That has led to some long nights for Mitchell over the years.
For many years, Marshall County voted on old “chute type” voting machines.
These were the machines where the voter went in, closed the curtain, turned a lever by the name they wanted to vote for, then the machine counted it when the voter opened the curtain again.
The results would then be hand tabulated on giant spread sheets.
“We have seen the sun rise still counting votes,” Mitchell said.
The first box to go to electronic voting in Marshall County was absentee ballots. In the hand tabulating days, the absentee votes were usually counted last. That led to allegations of abuse.
“People would say, ‘Oh, they saw how many votes so-and-so needed, then got them in the absentees,’” Mitchell said.
Of course there was nothing to such innuendo. But to put it to rest, Mitchell got the County Commission to agree to use electronic voting for absentees and to add the absentees to the overall count first.
After a few of those all-night vote counting sessions, Mitchell got the Commission to approve electronic voting countywide and the old machines were scrapped.
One added benefit of the current setup is there are paper ballots that are fed into the machine.
“If there were ever a problem with an election, you could go back and count the actual ballots,” Mitchell said. “It’s a backup.”
There are often curveballs that those in charge of elections must deal with.
“The last election is a great example,” Mitchell said. “It was 4 or 5 weeks before the election and we got a letter from Warrenton United Methodist Church that they were unable to hold the election there. We also got a letter about that time that the Arab Community Center could not hold the election. We had to go to the County Commission and get them to agree to move the voting place. While I’m in charge of holding the election, the Commission is in charge of the polling places.”
Consolidation actually makes for a more efficient voting process, Mitchell said.
“One issue we have is finding enough pollworkers to hold the election,” he said.
Pollworkers earn $75 for the 14-hour or so day involved in working the voting places, plus another $25 for attending pollworker school.
“They do it as community service,” Mitchell said. “It’s not about the money.”
Most people think of the probate office as a place to get a car tag. Big changes have taken place in that area of the operation during Mitchell’s time.
“The day I took office, the one-stop system for car tags went into effect,” he said. It allowed motorists to make one stop at the probate office to get a tag. Before that, people had to go to the tax assessor’s office, the collector’s office and then the probate office.
Mitchell added satellite tag offices in Arab and Albertville for citizens’ convenience.
Now, online renewals are available.
“You can renew your tag at 11 at night from your own home if you want,” Mitchell said.
Being probate judge has afforded Mitchell many opportunities he would never have had otherwise, he said. And he thanked the people of Marshall County for allowing him to do a job he enjoyed.
“I’ve had dinner at the governor’s mansion,” he said. “I got to know Sen. Howell Heflin and Congressman Tom Bevill. Believe me, they cared about Marshall County. When we would have a tornado, they would call me and want to come tour the damage. I would call the sheriff’s department and get a deputy to escort them.”
Perhaps Mitchell’s biggest opportunity as an elected official was getting to meet President Clinton in the 1990s while Clinton was in office. He flew into Birmingham. Mitchell got to drive one of the automobiles in the Presidential motorcade.
Mitchell is not the only probate judge retiring this year. At one of his last meetings of the Alabama Probate Judges Association, it was noted that 28 of Alabama’s 68 probate judges are retiring this year. Some are “aging out.” Alabama law prohibits anyone from holding any type of judgeship after the age of 70.
“I am actually one of the few not retiring due to age,” Mitchell said. He will be 60 his next birthday.
He feels very good about turning over the operation to Andrea LeCroy. She has worked in the probate office for 23 years, working her way up from records clerk to chief clerk.
Mitchell does not expect to have trouble filling his days.
He has an aging mother, Mary Ann Mitchell, he wants to spend more time with. He has 2 grown daughters, Lauren Bolding, the culinary arts teacher at Albertville High School, and Courtney Wyatt, an accountant.
“I’ve got 6 grandchildren,” Mitchell said. “And I’ve got my house, my yard, my garden, my bass boat and my golf clubs. I shouldn’t have trouble staying busy.”