MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - At most holiday get-togethers there’s usually one person who is the peacekeeper and adjudicator over family squabbles.
But who presides over such hearings when you have not one, but two bona fide judges in the family?
They both do. At least that’s the plan for recently sworn in Montgomery Municipal Court Judge Samarria Dunson and newly elected Circuit Court Judge Lloria James. They’ve tackled most things in life together as sisters and why should this chapter be any different?
It would be a difficult task to find a closer set of siblings. Being only 18 months apart in age, they sound almost identical, laugh heartily together and unequivocally support each other.
As native Montgomerians, Dunson, 42, and James, 40, graduated from Lee High School in the mid- and late-1990s before both heading off to the University of Alabama.
“This is one of the few places our paths differed,” Dunson said. “I started majoring in biology. I was supposed to go to med school but I called our dad after my physics final junior year and said I was changing my major.”
Dunson opted to major in Spanish, which had been her minor, and instead minor in biology. James, however, knew from the start she was destined for a career in law.
“When I was in sixth grade, Ellen Brooks came to speak about civics and I said that day I want to be a district attorney,” James said of the former Montgomery County District Attorney. “I didn’t even know what a DA was, but I knew I wanted to go to law school and become one.”
Both sisters continued their educations at the University of Alabama Law School, though James had it a little easier.
“Everything in my path was much easier because she was right in front of me,” James said. “All the clubs, student judiciary, it was a lot easier for me to follower her.”
“I also was in the position to support her and warn her that she probably wouldn’t make all A’s in law school, and that was OK,” Dunson said.
After they each graduated and passed the Alabama Bar exam, they returned to Montgomery to begin their careers with one goal in mind.
“We wanted to actively contribute to making Montgomery a place where our children and their children would want to come back and live their adult lives,” James said.
Dunson carved out a niche for herself in health-care compliance law while her younger sister began her career as a prosecutor almost immediately after graduating.
“I kind of held on to that passion for health care,” Dunson said chuckling.
When James is sworn in at the turn of the year, it’ll be her second time behind the bench. She first served, like Dunson does now, as a municipal court judge in Montgomery from 2012-2015 before returning to the District Attorney’s Office as Daryl Bailey’s chief prosecutor.
While James made a career being highly visible to the public, Dunson was happy to stay out of the spotlight, building her career but also supporting her husband’s career as an attorney and her sister and brother-in-law.
“For me she pretty much raised my kids while I was on the campaign trail,” James said. “She was helping with homework and also setting up websites and pretty much managing my campaign.”
So when Mayor Steven Reed recently proposed Dunson fill a vacant seat in Municipal Court, James enthusiastically supported her sister.
“I was really insistent and excited about her having her time, because she really deserves it,” James said. “She’s brilliant in her own right. She spends a lot of time in the shadows and not stepping out and taking credit where its due so I was really excited for her.”
“And I wasn’t going to do it. Like when I first heard about it, I thought there’s so much going on but then she really encouraged me,” Dunson said. “I never expected to be a judge. The whole time I was out standing in the street, holding signs for Lloria, I never thought this would be an opportunity for me.”
Dunson was sworn in to her new position earlier this month.
Both women, without hesitation, credit their parents with their success. An entire generation of educators paved the way for Dunson and James to be successful, they said.
Their father, Sam Munnerlyn, retired last year after serving 12 years as president of Trenholm State Community College and their mother, Marielle Munnerlyn, served as a professor as Alabama State University.
“He’s got the best work ethic. He’d go to work tired, go to work sick, always be on time, tell the truth,” James said. “Our mom was filled with compassion. It was nothing to take in a student, buy books for a student. Both of them coming together, we’re the result of that, that toughness, hard work and mom’s soft side.”
Together, Dunson and James, not only as judges but also as Black women, hope to engage Montgomery’s children in a way that will broaden their horizons. They have no plans to sit behind the bench and get comfortable until the next election season.
“I don’t think a lot of our children even know what to dream to be because people like us don’t spend enough time with them,” James said. “It’s our job as leaders in Montgomery to be in those places, in those spaces where kids, who may not have exposure to different careers or different people, can get that exposure.”
“It doesn’t just help them, but it helps us. It helps Montgomery,” Dunson said. “If we’re helping to raise the new generation of professionals then that’s really what it’s about for us.”
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