By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter
In Alabama legal circles, you can’t go too far without hearing Chris McCool’s name. The West Alabama district attorney has been on the job for nearly two decades and has served as the president, vice president and treasurer of the Alabama District Attorney’s Association.
Now, he’s ready to change sides of the bench.
On Wednesday, McCool announced he would seek a seat on Alabama’s Court of Criminal Appeals ― a five-member panel that handles all felony and misdemeanor appeals cases in the State.
“We need to have judges that are people that are fair and will abide the law across the board no matter who is in front of them, no matter what,” McCool said in an interview with APR. “Whether it helps you or hurts you, judges should be focused on justice.”
McCool has been a prosecutor for more than 22 years, joining the team in Pickens County as an assistant district attorney in 1995. He spent two years before that in private practice in his hometown of Gordo, Alabama. Since 2001, McCool has been the district attorney for Lamar, Fayette and Pickens Counties in Alabama’s 24th Judicial Circuit.
He has said he will run as a Republican in the 2018 election for the Appeals Court, which is often handed high-profile cases such as former House Speaker Mike Hubbard’s appeal.
In addition to upholding and overturning criminal convictions, the Court’s decisions set precedent for how legal cases in Alabama are interpreted in the future, much like the Alabama Supreme Court.
McCool could have a hand in that if he wins a seat on the panel.
“In my career as a prosecutor, I’ve prosecuted capital murder. I’ve prosecuted juvenile cases. I’ve prosecuted child abuse, child sex abuse, and I’ve prosecuted public corruption cases,” McCool said. “Whatever the law is, is whatever I follow as a prosecutor, and I would follow it as a judge as well.”
Unlike many states, judgeships on Alabama’s Court of Criminal Appeals — along with circuit and district judgeships and the Supreme Court for that matter — are elected positions. There is no requirement that the judges even by experienced lawyers or jurists.
But McCool has quite the background, serving in a number of law enforcement leadership roles since becoming a prosecutor nearly 20 years ago. For the past decade, he’s been on the Alabama District Attorneys Association Executive Committee. He’s been named a prosecutor of the year by the Victims of Crime and Leniency and DA of the year by the ADAA.
In 2010, he was appointed as a member of the Supreme Court’s Standing Committee on the Alabama Rules of Evidence, and, for years, he’s been a member of the U.S. District Attorney for North Alabama’s Law Enforcement Coordinating Committee.
To McCool, that form of experience ― experience prosecuting thousands of felony cases and dozens of jury trials ― is a necessity for anyone who wishes to sit on the court.
“There’s a steep learning curve if you don’t have that experience,” he said. “I’ve had the experience of standing there in front of 12 jurors and advocating for justice ― even unfortunately asking for the death penalty.”
“The law is not something that should be taken lightly, and it’s not something that should be applied lightly.”
Earlier this year, when then-Attorney General Luther Strange was appointed by then-Gov. Robert Bentley to the US Senate, replacing Jeff Sessions, McCool’s name was floated as a possible replacement for Strange.
But Bentley ended up choosing Marshall County District Attorney Steve Marshall as the attorney general, and McCool said he’s happy to run for the Court of Criminal Appeals instead.
The Court was actually his Plan A before, and remained his Plan A after Bentley chose Marshall.
McCool has taught at the University of Alabama Law School as an adjunct professor in the Trial Advocacy Program, and has worked as a Municipal Court Judge for Reform and Pickensville, Alabama. He’s also a member of the Pickens County Republican Executive Committee and the Alabama Republican Party Executive Committee.
Back home, McCool pastors Zion Primitive Baptist Church, where his wife, four kids and son-in-law attend.