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Judging Alabama

Advice from two of Alabama's most respected and successful judges

Sitting down with two Alabama judges, Justice Sarah Stewart and Judge Karen Hall, proves not only inspiring but food for the soul. 

Justice Sarah Stewart

“Managing your own expectations versus managing what’s expected of you.”  Justice Sarah Stewart offers this as the number one key to being a successful woman.  Justice Stewart wanted it all coming up through her career.  She wanted the family, she wanted the career, she wanted to continue to grow in both of those houses, but Justice Stewart began to realize that the idea that you can have it all, well, that turned out to be a myth.  Managing what’s expected of you versus your own expectations of yourself is a constant push and pull between what you want for yourself and what others want from you.  When Justice Stewart speaks to other women in her field, she likens her life to an old-fashioned paper plate at dinner.  You can only fit so much on it before it starts to overflow, things fall off, and get messy. “I wasn’t going to be able to be at every single choir recital and every single play; sometimes it just wasn’t possible for me, part of what I had to manage was letting that go. I had to be a Judge and help people with drug addictions or help bring justice to victims and their families.”  Being ok with life piled on and things falling off becomes this form of acceptance that holds you in a better mental position to manage all these expectations. Maybe the myth of you can have it all comes from the myth of you can do it all. “But that still doesn’t mean you’re not a great mother, or a great lawyer and when you know that the better off you are.”

Before Justice Stewart began mentoring young women, she thought that managing these expectations just fell into two categories, work and home.  “Now I recognized that a healthier approach is more like a tripod and that third leg has got to be your own well-being.  Women tend to neglect themselves in areas such as exercise, eating well and mental health because they are focused on the other two legs instead of themselves.”  How can you possibly meet these expectations if you are not at your best and that comes from taking time out for yourself.  “Your mental health and your sense of self-worth is just as important as your family and your career.”

Carving out solitary time with a young family and a demanding career can be very difficult. “When you have down time, you feel like you need to be doing something and the luxury of taking a walk without being on the phone, or without counting how many steps you’re getting in, but just taking a walk for a mental break is something we all need to do more.”

We ended our conversation with Justice Stewart by asking what books women should be reading today.  Justice Stewart herself is reading Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead after finishing a previous book of hers called Dare Greatly.  Justice Stewart agrees with Brené Brown’s premise that there is a widespread belief that vulnerability is a weakness but by embracing it, that becomes your greatest strength. “Women are turning out to be very successful leaders because they are willing to be more vulnerable and learn from that position. Leading from vulnerability helps mold and manage your own expectations and helps you become a better leader all around.”

Justice Sarah Stewart is an Associate Justice on the Alabama Supreme Court, elected  in November 2018 for a six-year term.  Before her appointment, she served for thirteen years as a Circuit Judge in Mobile and was the first female jury trial judge in the area.  On March 5th of this year, Justice Stewart won the position of Alabama Chief Justice.

Judge Karen Hall

As a young woman, Judge Karen Hall was not equipped with a fear filter, and that unbridled constitution translated into a hallmark quote which she certainly would tell every woman, “Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there.”  Almost sounds like she dares you.  Judge Hall in all her success, says she has lost as much as she has won in her life.  That never stopped her from pushing through, expanding upwards and outwards in marriage, family and career.

“Many women don’t run for public office because of the fear factor.”  Judge Hall said.  There are many ways fear translates into our lives as women, whether it’s the fear of being exposed, that nettled thought that we are sacrificing our families for our careers, or the fear of taking on greater challenges; it appears to be this seemingly insurmountable obstacle that Judge Hall is determined for all of us to conquer.

I sat down with Judge Hall and asked her to help us dissect this fear factor that challenges us, and how we can best break that barrier.

What can be an aggravating component in challenging our fears? Advice. Yes, the advice you take can exacerbate your fear factor.   It may sound counterintuitive, but we must have great discernment from whom we take advice and why it’s being offered in the first place, even from other women.  “As women, we can be very hard on one another, it’s unfortunate but true.”  Judge Hall recalled advice given by a colleague when she first took the bench that today would be categorized as a generationally limited way of thinking. You don’t have to believe everyone. Times change, and your fears of today might not be those of tomorrow. Judge Hall touched on several generational differences, and sees tremendous progress for women, but poor advice is poor advice, and it can be a binding agent to the status quo, when we deserve and dream of so much more. Judge Hall shared that, “It is extremely important to surround yourself with a supportive network who offers forward-thinking and experienced advice.”

For Judge Hall, her husband has been a mitigating force to life’s challenges and fears. “Find a spouse or a partner that is truly supportive and committed to you every day,” and Judge Hall means every day.  She and Bill met in 1985 and married two years later; a marriage, she says, that has been her bedrock for the last 37 years.  Together, they have been the cornerstones of one another’s success.

We went on and spoke of younger women and Judge Hall touched on generational changes and how those influence women in marriage today.

“There has been substantial progress regarding domestic duties and child-rearing responsibilities as far as sharing the load goes.  Women today appear to have greater freedom to pursue their career goals, because their spouses share in roles that were once left exclusively to women.”

However, Judge Hall highlighted a key issue facing younger women today that she has seen in her courtroom.  “Younger couples aren’t necessarily looking forward and asking, where do we see ourselves as a couple 30 or 40 years down the road? They are looking for relationships based upon economic convenience or a certain lifestyle now, rather than the fundamental principle of long-term commitment to one another.”

Sounds like this sort of instant gratification can lead to trouble sooner than later. So, Judge Hall could not emphasize enough the importance of seeking a loving and committed relationship. Spending everyday life with that person and dreaming of what that relationship might look like in the future. During our conversation, it was apparent that this kind of relationship Judge Hall speaks of is the one she and Bill share. Unconditional love and trust, sharing life’s challenges, and supporting one another through the good and the bad can diminish fear to nothing more than an obstacle in life’s path.

After my lunch with Judge Hall, I couldn’t help but to think that the two gifts we can give to one another as women is to be a person worthy of giving sound, experienced advice, and to become a leader in your capacity to represent what’s possible for younger generations of women.

Judge Hall has served the people of Madison County as a judge since 1996. She received her Doctor of Jurisprudence from Cumberland School of Law and her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Florida, where she was recognized as a member of the University’s Hall of Fame. She has been involved with numerous organizations for years at the national, state, and local level; notably as the past President of Leadership Huntsville/Madison County and the past President of The National Children’s Advocacy Center Board of Directors. More than any award or accolade, Judge Hall considers her greatest achievement to be her three children.