To celebrate our 40th anniversary in 2017, Virginia Legal Aid Society is telling 40 stories that reflect our history, our people and the cases and events that have made the past 40 years so memorable. These will be released over 40 weeks, finishing at our gala celebration on November 17 in Farmville at the Moton Museum.
In the spring of 1997, he could be satisfied that he had built a nice law practice. His three children were on their way to becoming independent, well-educated adults. Then he got a call that scared him at first. State Senator Louise Lucas and Delegate Ted Bennett wanted to talk to him. “Joel, what are you doing today? Could you come up to Richmond for a talk?”
What had he done wrong? Nothing, it turned out. “We want to consider you for this judgeship,” they told him.
“I never aspired to be a judge, and I never asked to be a judge,” he said. “It’s not that I had anything against being a judge. I didn’t view that as something being open to me.” There were simply so few minority judges in Virginia, it just didn’t seem like a realistic to plan on ever becoming a judge.
Still, he hesitated. He was excited about the offer. But he had brought his son, Joel Jr., into his practice and was enjoying working with him. His son (a current member of VLAS’s Board of Directors) convinced him that he was ready to run the family practice on his own and wanted his father to pursue this new opportunity and challenge.
He served as General District Court judge in Halifax for 10 years before being elevated to the Tenth Judicial Circuit Court, southwest of Richmond, where he served daily until his retirement in May 2016. He was the first African American to serve that circuit.
“I did everything I could as a judge to make sure people had a fair shake,” he said. “I wanted people to come out of the courthouse saying, ‘Judge Cunningham didn’t agree with my theory of the case, but he sure did listen to me,’ ” he said.
In retirement, Judge Cunningham is on the recall list for the Virginia Supreme Court, occasionally stepping in as a substitute judge as needed.
He also volunteers in the Halifax drug court, a program he established with the help of some partners in the community about two years before retirement. Drug courts incorporate support programs into the legal system, making an effort to keep victims of drugs from returning to jail because they can’t get the help they need to shake their dependency. He also serves as judge for the drug court once a week.
“We want to stop the merry-go-round, getting out of jail and getting back in trouble,” he said. “We tell people who have been addicted to drugs a long time, ‘You are somebody, and you’re going to be OK.’ ”
He talked about a recent support meeting, in which one of the members was applauded for staying clean for 60 consecutive days. “This human being has never been patted on the back for anything in his life,” he said.
Victory Restaurant, the South Boston eating establishment that long ago emphatically refused to serve Joel Cunningham because of his skin color, now serves as a storage building for Mac Ragans, a childhood friend of Joel’s who later sold Joel his first car and now runs Mac Ragans Auto & Towing.
Judge Cunningham looks around nearby Halifax, his home for so many years. “We have a great community. While there is room for improvement, I’m proud of the progress we’ve made. We’re pursing one goal: making Halifax County the best place to work, live, dream and go to school.”
Judge Cunningham is still a sought-after speaker who continues to believe in the critical need for Legal Aid services. He still says, “One of the proudest things that I say about my history is that I was a Legal Aid lawyer.
“The complexity of our court system is such that it would make the average man shudder to go before a legal tribunal without a lawyer,” he said. “If we’re going to be a nation that fosters respect of the rule of law and equal treatment under the law, then we have to support access to legal representation for everybody.”
In 2016, VLAS honored Judge Cunningham’s career by creating the annual Joel Cunningham Sr. Award for Leadership in Access to Justice in the 10th Judicial Circuit Court of Virginia. The first recipient: Judge Joel Cunningham Sr.
The inscription on his award reads: “For his Exemplary Work as a Lawyer, Judge and Citizen to Expand Access For Low-Income Virginians through Direct Representation, Encouragement Of Increased Pro Bono Service, and State Leadership.” The 2017 award will be presented in September.