Cybil Cleveland

cybil cleveland

Written by Suzanne Conway

Judge Sybil Cleveland began breaking barriers as a young adult. Her work on the bench allows her to practice her passion, which is giving back to the community and helping others.

photos by Steve Babin

EVENT: Where were you born and what would you like people to know about your upbringing?

SC: I was born and raised in Hartselle. While attending Hartselle High I became the first African-American female to win the title of Miss Hartselle High; the first African-American female to receive enough votes to become a mainstream cheerleader and not the school’s mascot. I was one of only a few African-American students to be inducted into the National Honor Society and to be placed in the Advanced Studies Program.

After graduating from Hartselle High School in 1980, I enrolled in Calhoun Community College, delaying my plan to attend the University North Alabama due to a series of unfortunate events that included the loss of my mother due to lupus and the [subsequent] sudden loss of my father from heart failure.

After completing Calhoun, I transferred to the University of North Alabama in 1982 and graduated with a Political Science Degree in 1984, then entered the workforce to save money for law school. I applied and was accepted to Cumberland Law School at Samford University in Birmingham in 1987 and graduated with a Juris Doctor Degree in 1990.

EVENT: What is your legal background?

SC: After law school, I served as an Associate Attorney in the Law Firm of Clyde E. Jones, a criminal defense firm in Birmingham where I handled cases involving murder, capital murder, rape, robbery, burglary and represented defendants in the Juvenile Court System. Simultaneously, I served as a Special Appointed Municipal Court Prosecutor for the cities of Birmingham and Ensley prosecuting criminal misdemeanors cases.

I was hired in September of 1992 by the Madison County District Attorney’s Office to serve as an Assistant District Attorney in the Child Support Enforcement Unit representing the Madison County Department of Human Resources – handling child support and paternity cases. I was promoted to Supervising Attorney within the DA’s office Child Support Unit in 1998 where I remained until my appointment to the bench by the Huntsville City Council in May of 1999 – becoming the second African- American to serve as a full-time judge in the Huntsville/Madison County Court System. I am now in my fifth term, having been reappointed (unanimously) four consecutive times and will stand for re-appointment in May of 2019.

EVENT: What are your favorite things about Huntsville?

SC: I love the fact that Huntsville is a most progressive city made up of people from all walks of life who work to make our community one of the best in the country.

This city has given me an opportunity to be one of the youngest Municipal Court judges in Huntsville at the age of 36 years when most attorneys don’t become judges until much later in their careers.

This community also supported me when it became clear that a new and innovative approach to solving a growing problem needed implementation. The problem involved an [increasing] number of persons entering the criminal justice system with serious mental health conditions. Thus, in September of 2004, I was able to start the state of Alabama’s first, Municipal Mental Health Court Program in the city of Huntsville which was designed to allow the court to intervene with intensive mental health and/or drug treatment, and legal accountability.

Mental Health Court now in its 15th year has been very successful due to the long-term involvement and commitments of many entities. To ensure that I would have all the necessary training and skills to handle such an innovative program, the city of Huntsville supported me by giving me the opportunity to travel to the National Judicial College in Reno, Nevada to study alongside judges from across the country and become the city’s first and only Certified Mental Health Court Judge in August 2005.

Because of this city’s commitment, Mental Health Court’s success has helped to grow other Specialty Court Programs within the city of Huntsville Court System to include Domestic Violence Court, Veteran’s Court, and Jail Diversion.

EVENT: What sparks passion in you?

SC: I am most passionate about giving back and helping others. Coming from a background of meager means and having faced and overcome my own challenges has had a humbling effect on the way I approach life and how I treat others. I knew at an early age, that no matter what career path I chose, I wanted to be taken seriously and I wanted to be able to help all persons regardless of their background or station in life.

In fact, I believe I was profoundly affected while working as an Assistant District Attorney addressing child support and other legal issues commonly faced by young single mothers and fathers. During my time in the Child Support Unit, I had a front row seat to how legal decisions, no matter how simple or complex, could affect entire families, regardless of income, race, and status. It was also through this experience that I voluntarily took on fostering a child for almost two years while a single person myself.

I have been privileged to be able to exercise my passion of giving back and serving others as a member of many professional, civic, and charitable organizations.

EVENT: What changes would you like to see implemented in our legal system?

SC: I have just started my presidency of The Alabama Municipal Judges Association becoming the First African-American to serve in this capacity.

The AMJA provides support to Alabama’s 273 Municipal Courts and their Judges. Inspired by the success of the Specialty Courts I have implemented in the Huntsville Court System, my goal as President of AMJA is to help implement Specialty Courts in communities throughout the State of Alabama with the hopes of ultimately improving the overall effectiveness of jurisprudence in Alabama’s Municipal Courts. Specialty Courts, when implemented properly can dramatically improve the quality of life for the individual defendants and their families, as well as the safely and well-being of the community at-large.

EVENT: What do you enjoy doing in your off time?

SC: In my spare time, I enjoy spending quality time with family and friends. I especially enjoy engaging in a competitive board game of Aggravation or an intense game of Spades. I also enjoy traveling, cooking, working out and taking relaxing walks with my best canine friend of 11 years, Kobie.

“… I wanted to be able to help all persons regardless of their background or station in life.”

Spread the love