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Sue Bell Cobb, right, is sworn in as Supreme Court chief justice by former Alabama Gov. John Patterson on Tuesday. Cobb is the first woman to hold the state's highest judicial post.
AP photo by Rob Carr
Sue Bell Cobb, right, is sworn in as Supreme Court chief justice by former Alabama Gov. John Patterson on Tuesday. Cobb is the first woman to hold the state's highest judicial post.

Cobb takes office as state's first female chief justice

MONTGOMERY (AP)— Sue Bell Cobb took the oath of office Tuesday as Alabama's first female chief justice and only the sixth woman to serve on the state's highest court in its 188-year history.

The Alabama milestone is part of a trend across the South, where women have been gaining political power in recent decades with elections to offices of governor and U.S. senator.

With her investiture, Cobb also became the only Democrat on the nine-member Supreme Court and the only one among 19 appeals court judges in Alabama.

At a ceremony before about 500 people in a Montgomery hotel ballroom, she promised to make reducing prison overcrowding, improving funding for courts and changing the way judges are elected her top priorities as chief justice.

"I hope the courts will become known for fixing people rather than for filling prisons," Cobb said after being administered the oath by former Gov. John Patterson, who is also a retired state appellate judge.

Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta, said Cobb is one of a number of women slowly gaining political power across the South. In some ways, he said, Alabama is catching up. He noted that Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears was just elected to a second term and that Texas elected Ann Richards as governor in 1990.

Alabama elected Lurleen Wallace as governor in 1966, the only woman to hold the office. But she was widely viewed as a stand-in for her husband, then-segregationist Gov. George C. Wallace, who won in 1962 and by law was barred from re-election.

Black said it's natural that women would win elections to public office since there are more female than male voters, but he said in Southern states like Alabama women are just moving into positions to become viable candidates.

"The pool of experienced female lawyers is much higher than it has been in the past," said Black, explaining why women are suddenly finding their way onto appellate courts.

Including Cobb, there are now three women on the Alabama Supreme Court — one-third of the nine members — and six female appellate court judges, a contrast to the more than 130 years when there were no women on the appellate courts.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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