Passing judgement without prejudice


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The only time Rossie Alston sees in black and white is when he’s talking to uniformed officials on the football field.

The 45-year-old African-American Prince William County Circuit Court judge and veteran football official is a picture of tolerance and understanding. He is a county native that became successful by treating people the same way he was treated by his neighbors.

“Prince William County has always been very good to me, no doubt, both personally and professionally,” Alston said. “The judges were always fair to me, the other attorneys in the area were always good and fair to me. The opportunities I had transcended race. People were just nice.”

Alston’s color-blind philosophy permeates through many aspects of his life. Alston is one of just two African-American judges out of 14 in Prince William. In 1981, he married his college sweetheart, Carol, who is white. And while attending Gar-Field High School in the early 1970s, which was roughly 90 percent white at the time, Alston was class president.

“Obviously some white kids voted for me,” joked Alston.

Alston’s successful rise through the legal ranks from his days as an attorney in Manassas to his promotion from juvenile court to circuit court two years ago can be largely attributed to his parents’ tolerant attitudes.

“My parents raised me to believe that they’re good people and they’re bad people. The color of their skin doesn’t really make any difference,” Alston said. “[They said] ‘There are good and bad in every group so try and hang with the good people.'”

Ironically, his parents’ involvement in the legal system his father was a police officer in Washington, D.C. and his mother started working for the FBI in the latent fingerprint department when he was in middle school had little to do with why Alston chose to become a lawyer after college.

“I never really thought about that until I was giving a speech at a police association gathering,” Alston said. “And I was preparing my remarks, I was thinking about my own situation and I said, ‘ya, know, both of my parents were in law enforcement.’ It sort of dawned on me, that wasn’t something that was driven [into me] growing up. My parents were both in law enforcement and look where I ended up.”

Alston’s love for sports eventually prompted him to become an official. He never played organized football but his understanding of the game and his ability to interpret rules honed in law school was enough for him to ask about becoming an official.

“I was never big enough to play football but I always liked the game,” Alston said. “One day I was at Gar-Field, I had graduated from law school and I was sitting there watching the game. I saw a guy that I knew on the football field officiating the game and I happened to bowl with him in a league. So I said to myself, ‘I’d like to do that, that’s everything I like.’ It’s rules and it’s football, I’d like to do that. And so the next time I saw him at bowling, his name was Gayle Smith…I said ‘Gayle, how do you get involved in this football officiating stuff? That looks like fun’. And he said, ‘This is what you do, you come to a meeting, we’ll get you involved and I have been doing it ever since then.”

After spending his early officiating days in the Skyline Football Officials Association, Alston worked his way up to be president of the Northern Virginia Football Officials Association. As president, he conducts the officer meetings each week, handles much of the employee information distribution such as changes in health insurance and helps commissioner Dennis Hall with the scheduling of games.

Around his administrative duties, Alston also serves as a referee for freshmen, junior varsity, varsity and club teams throughout Fairfax, Prince William, Loudoun and Stafford Counties, as well as schools in Arlington, Washington, D.C., Winchester and Maryland. He is generally the chief of a five-person officiating crew and he runs the group like a pigskin signal-caller, says Hall.

“It’s a team of five guys and you have to have a quarterback or office manager and Rossie is very good at that,” Hall said. “He is very level-headed, he evaluates all situations. You never see him rush to judgment and he runs our meetings the same way. Sometimes dealing with a bunch of football officials is very hard to do.”

And Alston doesn’t put on any airs because he is a judge. His peers respect him for his officiating ability first and foremost, said Hall.

“He is the same as an individual [as he is an official],” Hall said. “When we go out after a meeting, he is the same type of person. People respect him away from his position as a judge. We don’t look at him as a judge, we look at him as a person.”

Ex-Hylton and Potomac football coach Bill Brown couldn’t quite place any game that Alston refereed. That’s not a slam on Alston, though, said Brown. Alston’s just an example of the professionalism of the NVFOA.

“There were a couple of times in my career that I have been in games where I remember those officials really, really well,” Brown said. “And that, unfortunately, is not a good memory. Every year we can ban two officials [from our games]. You can take two guys off this list and say ‘I don’t want either one of these guys working my game.’ I can’t remember in all those years with the Northern Virginia Football Officials Association that I sent back [a form saying] I wanted to ban the officials. I never had that desire. He [Alston] is an example of what they stand for.”

Growing up in Prince William, Alston ran track for Gar-Field and graduated in 1975. He attended Averett College in Danville and graduated from law school at North Carolina Central University, a traditional black college at the time.

While at Averett, he met his wife Carol, who also happened to run track in high school. Alston was wearing his Gar-Field Indians letterman’s jacket on campus one day and Carol wanted to know if he knew her boyfriend at the time, who ran track with her at Thomas Jefferson in Annandale.

The boys didn’t know each other but Carol’s roommate Nancy Lueking did. Lueking had been casually dating the popular Alston for awhile before Alston asked Carol out in class one day.

“I ended up sitting near him in a political science class,” Carol said. “I was afraid I’d be bored in political science, so I would just sit near him and I knew it would be entertaining. He wrote in his notebook ‘do you want to go out.’ I didn’t know if he was serious or if he was just goofing around.”

In fact, Alston was serious, taking her out to see the college cult classic “Animal House” that weekend. What Carol believed would be just a safe date she thought he was just a fun-loving guy that wouldn’t necessarily commit to a serious relationship turned out to be the man for her.

Like Alston’s family, Carol’s relatives were color-blind as well, only worrying about the effect an interracial marriage might have on their children. Alston has two daughters, Devon, 16, and Peyton, 12. Devon is an all-state track runner at Osbourn Park High School while Peyton, who attends Benton Middle School, cheerleads and dances.

However, Carol’s father is from northern Wisconsin and served in the Navy and her mother was from Boston, so racial integration was never an issue. In fact, the Alstons joke with people about belonging to the same religion instead of their racial differences.

“Probably in a lot of ways we came from a similar background,” said Carol, who works part-time at a private horse stable in Clifton. “We have the same type of morals and goals in life. Church and family were important to us. People would ask us what religion we were and we’d both grown up Methodist. It was a big joke that we couldn’t marry outside of our religion.”

The Alstons got married before Rossie’s final year of law school and moved up to Manassas soon afterwards. Alston practiced law for a number of years in town with the law firm Smith, Hudson, Alston and Carluzzo before deciding he wanted to become a judge.

Delegate Harry Parrish (R 50th) got to know Alston in the initial recommendation process for becoming a juvenile court judge and was happy to recommend him for the circuit court judgeship.

“I think his demonstration of concern for his fellow man and the extra curricular activities outside his duties on the bench such as refereeing football and being active with his Church, all of those things entered into it,” Parrish said.

“He was a good attorney,” said Manassas-based lawyer Bill Stephens, who has known Alston for several years. “He’s personable, he’s down to earth and able to analyze situations by using common sense. If you have legal training like Rossie, it generally makes you a pretty good judge.”

Stephens, whom Alston called a mentor, recalled a recent vehicular manslaughter case where Alston came up with a creative sentence for his client. A 20-year-old driver was charged with vehicular manslaughter when his passenger died in a car wreck.

Instead of making him serve a straight sentence of several years, he suspended it by making him serve jail time on the weekends. The sentence was contingent upon the fact that the kid, who was living at home with his mother, would work and or attend school during the week.

That’s typical Rossie, said Stephens.

“He taking his view of life and fashioning it somewhere with his sentences and I have seen him do it,” Stephens said. “He’s great with people no matter what level of society. He’s willing to give them a break and then let’s them know what the punishment is if they don’t do it.”

Stephens recalls a story Alston told him one day that might best explain his success with people, regardless of color.

“He said his father moved his family from DC because he wasn’t going to bring up his family there so he moved them into the Woodbridge area,” Stephens said. “He [Rossie] was sitting outside crying and he felt lonely and a white neighbor came up and asked if he wanted to play, and I guess he has sort of never looked back. Rossie never made [race] a problem and it’s not a problem [for him].”

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