Joyce White Vance‘s unassuming countenance belies her formidable intelligence and forward-leaning drive. As the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, she serves 31 counties and almost 3 million people — approximately 60% of Alabama’s population — in matters that significantly affect our communities. In her seven years in the post, she has led the charge in growing the police-community relationship, fighting an opioid epidemic, entering into a memorandum of understanding with The University of Alabama over sorority desegregation, challenging Alabama’s immigration bill, investigating Alabama’s prison systems and creating the first-ever civil rights unit in her office. Her legacy is built on a patriotism that blossoms from a deep-seated reverence for the Constitution and the justice it provides us all. She is a living, breathing example of the fact that confidence need not be brazen, that integrity need not be boastful, and that the fiercest of justice fighters sometimes have five cats and a penchant for knitting. We are honored to welcome today’s FACE of Birmingham, Joyce White Vance.
Where did you grow up, and if not in Birmingham, what brought you here?
I grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles. My husband and I went to law school at the University of Virginia together. When we got engaged, I was working in Washington D.C. I had a case in Jackson, Mississippi, and I spent a couple of days a week there taking depositions. Back then, the only way to get from D.C. to Jackson was to fly through Birmingham, where my husband is from. My in-laws started this stealth campaign to get me to move to Birmingham. They never said a word, but my father-in-law would pick me up from the airport and take me out to barbecue with his law clerks and other cool things all weekend. After about four months, I looked at Bob and I said, “I think I could look for a job down here,” and it was totally my in-laws. I’ve always been so grateful they did that.
Tell us a bit about your professional journey in law. How did you come to be United States Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama?
Mostly by accident. I was very interested in civil rights work, and as a young lawyer in Washington D.C. I had the good fortune to be at a firm that did a lot of pro bono work. And then, when I came to Birmingham, I went to a wonderful firm — Bradley Arant, now Bradley — and I was really happy there. But my father-in-law, who was a federal judge, was killed by a mail bomber. In the course of that prosecution, I got to know some of the Justice Department lawyers who were working on that case. They really encouraged me to come start doing what they did. It seemed really important to pay forward all the commitment we had seen from them. So I thought that would be my public service obligation for two or three years and maybe I could do some civil rights work along the way.
What made you stay?
It’s an incredible opportunity to serve and get to stand up in court and say, “May it please the court, I represent the United States of America.” We don’t talk about it too much outside the office, but it’s real patriotism. This is a great example of why this system works. For instance, one of my best friends at the office is an incredibly conservative guy, and I tend to be really liberal. And it doesn’t matter at all at work, because we are just prosecutors trying to seek justice and uphold the Constitution together. That’s why we never talk about it outside the office because it sounds really sappy when you put it into words, but it’s the core of what we do and it’s the reason why I can never convince myself to leave the office.
Describe your role as a U.S. Attorney.
There are three components of my job: I prosecute crimes on behalf of the United States, I represent the United States when it gets sued in civil actions, and I collect judgments that are otherwise uncollectible. Those are the bare bones of the job. I have always explicitly rejected numbers as the metric for the work that we do. I think that our job is to make our community safer, and that might mean that we do fewer but more significant cases. It’s easy to get low-hanging fruit. It’s really difficult to look at the whole range of cases you could work on and decide which are the most important and which are going to make the community safer. We’ve had an enormous focus on heroin, trying to interdict the supply of heroin and doing outreach in the community to work on prevention and treatment. The big heroin cases take a lot of our time and the DEA’s and FBI’s resources, but at the end of the day, I feel really good about the decisions that we’ve made. So my view is that although enforcement is really the most substantive part of the work that we do, our role is not only to prosecute cases. We also need to be involved in preventing crime and working on re-entry, people coming back to the community after prison and helping to improve their successful outcomes. All of that work makes the community much safer.
You are a mother as well. How do you balance work with raising children?
I have a really great husband. That’s the whole point of having a marriage: the partnership. At different times, we take different tasks. We just view it as a partnership where it’s been his time to do some stuff I’ve done historically. Our kids are really supportive. We have really interesting dinner conversations, and I think, if anything, they really benefit from having watched their dad make it possible for me to have a job like this. I think it really speaks volumes to our three boys about the relationships they should have with their wives and women. At the end of the day, the sacrifices you have to make with a job like mine are worth it for our kids and for the next generation.
How do you like to spend your free time?
I knit, garden, cook and read. I watch a lot of soccer games as my youngest is a soccer player.
What are your three must-have style staples?
For the longest time, I had really long, black hair and only wore black, so my friend in the office downstairs used to call me Wednesday Addams and snap his fingers when I walked by, and it’s still true. Black Eileen Fisher, black pumps and a black cashmere scarf and I’m good to go. I branched out and knit a camel-colored scarf this summer, so I actually own something that’s not black now.
Do you have a favorite local eatery?
What’s something people might be surprised to know about you?
I do love Alabama football, and I have a football inscribed by Coach Saban. It’s really a “thank you” for the work that we’ve done on fighting heroin.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Every day you’re going to have to wake up in the morning and look at yourself in the mirror, and you’d better make sure the decisions you make are the right decisions, that they are decisions of integrity. There is always that voice in your gut to tell you what the right thing is. At the end of the day, fame and fortune don’t matter; what matters is doing the right thing and feeling good about the choices you are making.
Aside from faith, family and friends, name three things you can’t live without.
I can’t live without my cats. I think it might be some kind of public health violation, but I currently have five cats — Harry and Hermione, a kitten my daughter brought home from ballet named Juliet and then the two new cats that my husband named Wingus & Dingus.
I can’t live without my large stash of yarn for knitting.
And my two dogs — the appropriately named Trouble and Ms. Fig.
So my dogs, my cats and my yarn. Like I said, I’m really boring.
Thank you, Joyce, for sharing your wisdom and insights about our great state! To learn more about Joyce’s work as the U.S. Attorney of the Northern District of Alabama, visit justice.gov/usao-ndal/meet-us-attorney.
Thank you to Charity Ponter for the fabulous photos of Joyce in the Northern District of Alabama office of the Department of Justice.