If elected as Etowah County Circuit Judge next November, local attorney Stewart Burns assured potential voters that he won’t be found on the back nine on Twin Bridges Golf Course on sunny afternoons
“[Being a circuit judge] is a full-time job,” said Burns, a partner in the law firm of Burns, Burns & Garner located on Chesnut Street in Gadsden. “The hours are 8 to 5 Monday through Friday, at least. That’s what I plan on working. I’m not criticizing anyone; I’m just letting everyone know what my level of commitment will be. If elected I’ll be on the taxpayer dole, so to speak, so I want to keep an open ear to anyone who wants to talk.”
Burns either led or was co-counsel in approximately 50 jury trials over 22 years of practice. He authored or co-authored appellate briefs in approximately 30 cases. He was admitted to practice law in the State of Alabama in 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003, the U.S. Court of Appeals in for the 11th Circuit in 1991, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Alabama in 1989 and U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in 1990.
As his run for circuit judge will be his initial foray into the realm of politics, Burns also admitted that being on the bench is not within his comfort zone. On the contrary, he and his wife of 24 years, Kelly, early in their marriage agreed that he would not get involved in politics.
“Some of that had to do with my dad being a state representative for a number of years and him always asking me if I wanted to run for this office or that office, and some of it came from my fear of public speaking,” said Burns. “But when I commit to do something, I’m going to go at it 100 percent, and I think I’ve been stirred to do this thing. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
One subject that potential voters won’t have any gray area on is Burns’ stance on judicial activism.
“My views on a particular law are not really relevant,” he said. “Starting with the [U.S.] Constitution, whatever law there is, you have to follow it. So if there’s a stature that’s passed and it’s in conflict with that, it’s unconstitutional by law. All laws have to be in line with the Constitution or they’re invalid. So what my view of what a particular law should be is not relevant. The job of every judge is to apply the law to the facts of a particular case.”
A deacon and Sunday School teacher at Bellevue Baptist Church in Gadsden, Burns believes that he has practiced what he preaches in terms of integrity and honesty.
“A person that wants to be a judge should be able to show that he’s demonstrated wisdom in his own life, because he’s going to be called upon to make very serious decisions concerning other people’s lives. I think I’ve demonstrated wisdom in my own life by being married 24 years and raising three children in the church. Me being a deacon does not make me some kind of saint, but it does give the congregation some evidence that you lived your life out in front of them.”
Burns also feels that he fits the bill of an even judicial temperament, not the least of which is his ability to not take himself too seriously.
“I’m comfortable in my own skin, so I can laugh at myself. I’ve got plenty of weaknesses, and I’m not on an ego trip. I think a judge ought to be courteous to the lawyers, to the parties involved, to the jurors and to the staff. If you can’t do that and don’t want to handle these disputes, don’t take the job.
“If the parties can’t settle, a judge should be glad to take the case, render a decision and not begrudge people that want to have a hearing. I’m not going to threaten or arm-twist anybody to settle. If a case needs to be heard, it will be heard. I see a courtroom as a place to resolve a dispute in a civil manner.”
Although his father Gary and uncle Arthur practiced law, Burns’ decision to follow in the family footsteps occurred relatively late in his time as an undergraduate at the University of Alabama. A good deal of that reluctance to enter law school stemmed from Burns’ fear of public speaking combined with his father’s frequent encouragement to attend law school.
“I thought it would be totally inconsistent to be a lawyer who was afraid to speak in public. As far as my dad was concerned, I always responded in a way in that I didn’t say no, but I didn’t exactly say yes!”
After graduating from Emma Sansom High School in 1982, Burns majored in accounting at the Capstone.
“It wasn’t’ so much me wanting to be an accountant as me not wanting to go to law school,” Burns said with a laugh. “I certainly didn’t sit around as a kid and dream about becoming a lawyer.”
During his senior year, however, it occurred to Burns that the last thing he wanted was a career in accounting.
“I couldn’t see myself off in a room by myself crunching numbers and not dealing with people,” he said. “But on the other hand, I made sure that I didn’t go near a class that even resembled a speech course!”
Although Burns graduated magna cum laude in 1986 with a B.S. in accounting, he soon “gave up the ghost” and applied for the U of A Law School.
It was in the second year of his legal studies that Burns participated in a mock trial that featured community members as a jury and a local attorney acting as judge.
“I saw that I had the ability inside of me, and the fear of speaking was just a problem that had to be dealt with,” he said. “When you decide on the inside that you can do something, that goes a long way in conquering any doubts that you might have. I didn’t turn into a confident speaker overnight, but just the fact that I was able to argue my client’s case without any notes made me realize that I could do it.”
That’s not to say that Burns doesn’t experience pre-trial butterflies from time to time.
“Even your best coaches have nerves before a game, and I think that prods you along and helps you be prepared,” he said.
After graduating in 1988 with a Juris Doctor degree, Burns gravitated towards civil litigation with the firm of Burns, Burns & Burns.
“I did look at other opportunities, but in the end I thought it would be best to return to Gadsden where my family had an established name in that area of the law,” he said.
Civil litigation also was a good fit for Burns’ personality.
“I like to be around regular folks, and I make no apologies for that,” he said. “I’ve been involved in all personal injury cases that you can think of, mostly on the plaintiff’s side. I’ve also had quite a bit of experience in fraud, breach of contracts and will contests.”
In addition to his father and uncle, Burns practiced law with his cousin, Douglas Burns.
Burns, who played for the Rebel basketball, baseball and tennis teams in high school and has coached youth basketball, soccer and baseball, noted that he learned valuable life lessons from competitive sports. He believes that he’s passed those lessons onto his three children – 17-year old Zachary, 14-year old Amanda and 12-year old Brooke.
“There’s so many lessons to be learned from sports, not only discipline and teamwork but how to handle losing. Whether we like it or not, life deals everyone a bad hand sometimes. You have to learn to roll with the punches. Sports teaches you how to lose with class. Winning is important, but we all have to accept defeat and go out and do better the next time around.”
Assuming that he qualifies for the race this Saturday, Burns plans on talking to many civic organizations over the next few months. The general election is in November and the Democratic primary is on March. Burns will run for Billy Ogletree’s Place 2 on the 16th Judicial Circuit.
“If I’m elected, more than likely I won’t be the best judge ever, but the real challenge is to be the best judge that I can be,” said Burns. “If I don’t win this position, so be it. God loves me, and that’s enough for me.”