Holly Sawyer For Dothan Circuit Judge

Did you know that there will be an election on May 24th to choose Dothan’s new Circuit Judge? In this episode of “Home Grown,” we’re going to meet Holly Sawyer, an experienced lawyer who is running for Circuit Judge here in Dothan, Alabama. We’ll learn about her years of experience, what a Circuit Judge does, and how she plans to serve our community.

Meet Holly Sawyer

Holly Sawyer is a lawyer here in Dothan. She’s been practicing law for almost 17 years and graduated from Cumberland School of Law in 2005. After getting picked up by a really good law firm, she came to Dothan and has been a local for 13 and a half years.

January marked the third anniversary of Holly’s own law practice, and she has been running it ever since.  She calls herself a small-town street lawyer, meaning that she handles whatever comes in off the street. When she went into a law firm right out of law school, she was with three guys who are all old enough to be her dad. That's how you learn how to practice law, Holly says; they chuck you in the pool and expect you to learn how to swim.

By coming up under very smart lawyers, Holly has been fully trained. With four very different kinds of lawyers in that same building, she’s experienced in pretty much every area of law there is. Of course, as lawyers grow and develop their own practice, they tend to trend toward what they like doing, what they're good at, and what they have an affinity for. Over the years, Holly has narrowed her practice and is known for being a divorce lawyer.

Court Levels

Running on her experience is a benefit, Holly tells us, because Circuit Judge is an important job. It’s not a position where you can get a whole lot of on-the-job training; it’s literally a matter of life and death, dealing with people’s money, children, families, and their very lives.  

The Circuit Court is the court of general jurisdiction. At the lower level trial court, there is a District Court. This is for any money dispute that is under $20,000—which are going to be small claims cases—as well as misdemeanors. Above that is the Circuit Court, which Holly calls “Big Boy Court.”

Circuit Court Specifics

A Circuit Court case is for every money dispute that's over $20,000, every divorce, and every case that involves some sort of equitable remedy—meaning you're asking somebody to be made to do something or stop doing something. Additionally, all jury trials and all felonies are handled in Circuit Court. It's where all of the important things happen.

Additionally, it’s not necessarily easy to appeal a decision in Circuit Courts, as you have to go to an appellate court. It's important to have a judge that A) has a very, very broad background because they need to handle everything, and B) is going to do a good job to keep the appellate courts out and get things settled and resolved at the trial court level. This way, you don’t have to go beyond it to fix mess-ups.

Journey To Attorney

With such a huge responsibility put upon lawyers and judges, what led Holly to be an attorney? For one, she has a unique background. Holly has a Biology Undergraduate Degree and a Master's in Environmental Science, though she often tells people she has a degree in bugs. She wrote a thesis on aquatic insects and jokes that she just uses her science degree for parlor tricks.

However, these degrees gave her important skill sets: analytical and methodical thinking and writing skills have given her an edge over everybody else. When she got out of graduate school, she could not think about a Ph.D. Rather, she wanted to narrow her focus. Holly says she’s always wanted to know more and what made things the way they are.

When she went to graduate school, one of her professors was a lawyer; he told her she should consider going to law school, and that he thought she would be good at it. He advised she consider going to Cumberland, so Holly took the LSAT and applied. She got in and went, finding that it was a tremendously good fit for her.

A Passion For Law

Holly thoroughly enjoyed law school and loves the practice of law. As a public servant at heart, she does everything with the background of helping people and solving their problems. When she hears people say, ‘My kid ought to go to law school, they like to argue,’ it makes Holly’s skin crawl. If a lawyer’s arguing about something, it means they’re not doing their job well.

A lawyer’s job is to convince the judge and jury about the reasonableness of their position, and Holly is incredibly passionate about what she does. She eats, sleeps, breathes, drinks, and lives for the practice of law. No one could take it out of her if they tried—and she hopes to bring this passion to the role of Circuit Judge.

The Role Of Circuit Judge

A Circuit Judge, Holly says, needs to be a jack of all trades to be effective. This is because Circuit Judge is such a broad job. On any given day, a Circuit Judge could be put on cases involving car wrecks, divorces, boundary line disputes, and probate cases that have wound up in Circuit Court. They could be doing ten different things on any given day.

Any notion that all that goes on at the courthouse is criminal is just wrong, Holly tells us. Ask everybody that’s ever been divorced in Houston or Henry County and they’ll agree. Every divorce goes through the Circuit Court, which is Holly’s area of expertise. It’s an incredibly complex area of law because it involves all kinds of other areas of law that get sucked into a divorce—like how to deal with children, money, retirement, and real estate.

Holly has the background and training for the position of Circuit Judge. What she’s really asking people to do is wind her up like the top she is, pull that string, and let her do what she’s been trying to do all these years. This passion for practicing law, along with a love of serving others, is what has led Holly to pursue the role of Circuit Judge.

Ready For The Bench

Becoming Circuit Judge is a calling for Holly, and she has been laser-focused on it pretty much her entire career. She didn’t wake up one day and decide she’d like to be a Circuit Judge; it’s not her first time on the stage.

Holly was interviewed by the governor's office for the last Circuit Judge and went through the interview process, though the spot went to Judge Derrick. For Holly, it wasn’t the right time for her—and timing is everything. Now, though, is the right time. She’ll 44 years old in a couple of weeks and is at the peak of her practice.

She does a lot for her profession. She’s a Bar Commissioner, which is the governing body for lawyers, and she’s very dedicated to the position. Building her practice from the ground, Holly hopes that when she goes on the bench, she can leave her practice for other people to take what she’s started and run with it. She believes in training up the generation below her the way that she got trained up.

The Experience To Meet The Challenge

With her private practice experience, there’s plenty that Holly brings to the position of Circuit Judge. Holly says that one of the things she can bring to the bench above all others is that she’s one of the hardest working people she knows. Nobody is ever going to outwork her.

Holly has learned to work smart. She has good time management skills, which are essential when you run a business, a household, your life, and your clients’ lives all at the same time. She does exceedingly well with keeping a lot of balls in the air at once. Holly’s also been very fortunate in her career and has had opportunities other people haven't. She’s done this longer than the other candidates, and she has investments in her that others have not.

Holly’s ultimate goal is to take that training, energy, passion, and love for what she does and put it into a higher power or higher calling. This is why she’s running for judge. It's her time, and she can do a lot of good and use the investment that's been made in her for a good purpose.

Doing Things Different

There are some things that Holly plans to do differently than have been done in the position of Circuit Judge before. Number one, she says, is our divorce court system. One of the unmet needs in her line of work is guardians ad litem.

A guardian ad litem is a lawyer that is appointed on a particularly bad divorce case where the child needs a lawyer to look out for that child's best interest. Judges appoint guardians ad litem, but like a lot of things in this profession, the people who most need those services can least afford to pay them. One idea she has is to try to write a grant for guardian ad litem money and get some funding for those who can’t afford it.

There are certain programs through the state bar similar to this idea. For example, in mediation, there's a program that pays mediators who are rostered, trained, and have credentials. There's a fund that will pay the cost of mediation for people whose income is below a certain threshold. There should be a similar program for guardians ad litem, especially because the lawyers that serve as GALs are incredibly dedicated to the practice.

Holly says guardians ad litem have to deal with terrible, terrible situations for people. Because the clients tend to not be able to pay them, it's sort of the fast track to spending a whole lot of time in a really bad spot and not getting paid for it. If Holly can fix that problem, that's a huge step in the right direction. She knows the right people and the right steps to try to find money out there for those folks, and it’s something that I would be interested in pursuing.

Following The Law

We asked Holly a question for the people who may not be as familiar with the legal process. When a judge is making a judgment, are they interpreting the law, reading the law, enforcing it, and applying it as their interpretation? Or are they obligated to follow only past precedents and judgments that have been made?

According to Holly, a judge's job is to follow the law. Where the rubber meets the road is when judges have discretion. For example, in a divorce, a judge has an incredible amount of discretion. There are statutes that give instruction, but judges have to do a lot of filling in the blanks—particularly with regard to factual determinations. Who's the best parent for a child to be with? How do you divide things up?

Judges have discretion in their judgments. Every candidate that runs says they’re going to be fair. In order to be fair, however, the judge needs to know enough about the underlying subject matter. Holly has the right chops for this, not just in divorce law, but in a whole lot of areas of law. She has a much deeper understanding and knowledge base because of her training and experience.

Supporting The Community

The best part of campaigning, Holly says, is that it forced her to get out and do things that she wouldn't normally do. While she’s a pretty social animal, she also gets hired in the evening. Though she’d usually go home and not venture out again, campaigning has Holly out and about. That's honestly been the best part of it, she says.

Holly had tons of fun around the holidays, making the Christmas parade circuit. After that, she did a tour of senior citizen centers around Dothan, playing bingo with them. Participating in these community activities made Holly happy because, as she says, you can’t hang out with those folks and not be in a really good headspace. If she gets elected, she plans to ride in all of these parades every year and get kids in the community involved.

If Holly gets elected, she would also be Dothan’s first female Circuit Judge for Henry and Houston counties. She wants other young women to look at her as a person who came from an average home with average parents and an average life, worked hard and tried to do good, and believed in herself to get where she was going.

Holly thinks she has a pretty good story, and she really wants to inspire other young women to believe in themselves, pursue their dreams and goals, and get an education—because it always starts there. She wants them to go for it and believe in themselves.

Get Out And Vote

The election for Circuit Judge is May 24th, so be sure to get out there and vote for Molly Sawyer. She has worked incredibly hard for it and encourages anyone on the fence about her to check out her website. Every word in Holly’s campaign that has been posted, printed, typed, spoken, or recorded in any other form of media has come from her.

So make sure you get out and vote for Molly Sawyer for Circuit Judge. Don’t forget to subscribe to my channel so you can hear from more Dothan, Alabama locals, and stay tuned to see what I feature next!