Gavel Grab

AL Judge Cites Judicial Elections in Voiding Death Sentencing Scheme

Judge Todd

Judge Todd

Alabama’s capital murder sentencing scheme is unconstitutional, a Jefferson County judge said in a searing opinion on Thursday, citing in part “the obvious influence of partisan politics” on elected state judges. They are permitted under Alabama law to override jury recommendations of a life sentence and instead sentence defendants to death (see Gavel Grab).

“The Alabama capital sentencing scheme fails to provide special procedural safeguards to minimize the obvious influence of partisan politics or the potential for unlawful bias in the judiciary,” Judge Tracie Todd said in reading her  written ruling, according to “As a result, the death penalty in Alabama is being imposed in a ‘wholly arbitrary and capricious’ manner.”

“It is clear, from here on the front line, that Alabama’s judiciary has unequivocally been hijacked by partisan interests and unlawful legislative neglect,” she writes in the opinion. Todd also quotes former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb (see Gavel Grab) as likening the political pressure facing elected judges to “pitching yourself to the public just as if you were running for dogcatcher.”

“The influence of partisan politics on the Alabama judiciary indeed has never ending, interlaced talons that reach into every aspect of its criminal justice system,” Todd declares in her decision’s opening sentence. From there, her opinion weaves together many other components including U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence, “tough on crime” politicking in judicial elections, a process for appointment of defense counsel in capital cases that “falls prey to the hazards of political partisanship and bias in the judiciary,” appointment of inadequate legal counsel, case assignment “not immune to the cancer of politics in Alabama’s judicial system” and judicial underfunding. She also quotes Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In addition, Todd reaches much further back into to history to say, “Alabama trial judges face partisan election every six years. Ala. Code § 17-2 – 7 (1987). The danger that they will bend to political pressures when pronouncing sentence in highly publicized cases is the same danger confronted by judges beholden to King George III.”

According to The Associated Press, Todd took the side of defense lawyers who pointed to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling finding Florida’s death penalty law to be unconstitutional (see Gavel Grab). In that case, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote, “The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death.” She added, “A jury’s mere recommendation is not enough.” As a result of Todd’s decision, prosecutors will not be able to seek the death penalty for four defendants charged in three killings.

Also this week, Florida legislators voted to bring the state’s law in compliance with the Supreme Court ruling. The Washington Post reports, “Florida passes bill revamping its death penalty, Alabama judge deems that state’s death penalty unconstitutional.”

Justice at Stake raised concerns about  Alabama’s judicial override provision and judicial elections in a USA Today op-ed in 2014 (see Gavel Grab).


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