Gavel Grab

Is AL Death Penalty Scheme Unjust? Elected Judge Notes ‘Pressures’

One current judge and one ex-judge acknowledge that tough-on-crime concerns in Alabama judicial elections put pressure on state jurists to be less than impartial, writer Ashley Cleek reports in a Huffington Post commentary.

The commentary is titled, “Alabama’s Death Penalty Needs to Go/In light of the Supreme Court’s ruling against judicial override in Florida, one state remains where judges alone can decide life or death.” Under state law, judges in Alabama have been allowed to impose death sentences in cases in which juries called for life imprisonment instead, a practice recently declared unconstitutional by one state judge (see Gavel Grab).

Huffington Post reported these concerns of a sitting jurist: “Judge Tommy Nail, the presiding criminal judge in Jefferson County, Alabama’s most populous county, believes that …  in theory, judicial override can work to correct improper verdicts. The problem, he argued, ‘comes in practical application because of the pressures and other things that we as human beings have to deal with.’ Nail clarified that ‘pressures’ mean elections.” Read more

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Petitions Against Marriage Equality Dismissed by Alabama Court

The Alabama Supreme Court has thrown out petitions from conservatives asking for enforcement of the state’s ban on marriages for same-sex couples.

The Associated Press said the order had the effect of “cutting off a conservative bid to prevent gay weddings in the state.” However, several of the court’s justices vigorously criticized a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court last year that legalized marriage for same-sex couples nationwide. Read more

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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 Al.com. “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 Read more

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Blood-Drive Judge is Censured in Alabama

An Alabama judge has been publicly censured for telling defendants who couldn’t afford to pay their fines to “donate blood or face jail,” according to ABA Journal.

A Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) press release quoted in the newspaper says Perry County Circuit Judge Marvin Wiggins admitted violating the state’s Canon of Judicial Ethics. The SPLC filed an ethics complaint against Wiggins last year after he told a group of defendants they could get a $100 credit that could go towards their fines if they donated blood but those who didn’t want to could be jailed, saying “the sheriff has enough handcuffs” (see Gavel Grab).

SPLC senior staff attorney Sara Zampierin said the Court of the Judiciary’s Jan. 21 decision (it declared the judge’s remarks to be a form of misconduct) sends a “clear message that the constitutional rights of the poor must be respected in Alabama’s courtrooms.”

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Moore: ‘Not Defying’ U.S. Supreme Court on Marriage Equality

set-5a-color-roy-moore-chief-justice-14825913jpg-df54fe1459ae944bChief Justice Roy Moore of the Alabama Supreme Court says that despite his recent order against probate judges issuing marriage licenses for same-sex couples (see Gavel Grab), “I am not defying the United States Supreme Court.”

Moore made the assertion in an interview with The Los Angeles Times. He reasoned that the U.S. Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling last year applies only to Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee, and that the Alabama Supreme Court has yet to make its own decision on the effect of that ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges.

Numerous legal experts and many activists disagree with Moore, and the newspaper headlined its article, “Gay marriage order puts spotlight again on the ‘Ayatollah of Alabama.’” A “Remove Roy Moore” rally sponsored by Equality Wiregrass and the Human Rights Campaign, was held in Montgomery, Al. on Tuesday, according to Al.com.

While previously serving as chief justice, Moore became well-known in 2003 for refusing to follow a court order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the state judicial building. The Alabama Court of the Judiciary, a panel of judges and lawyers that monitor judicial conduct, removed him. He was re-elected in 2012.

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Alabama Chief Justice Moore: State Marriage Laws Still Rule

Chief Justice Roy Moore of the Alabama Supreme Court ordered on Wednesday that probate judges shall not issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples to wed. His administrative order said that at least until his court rules on the impact of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year, that probate judges have a “ministerial duty” not to issue the marriage licenses.

According to NPR, Moore’s order said that in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, “Confusion and uncertainty exist among the probate judges of this State as to the effect of Obergefell on the ‘existing orders.’” He continued, “I am not at liberty to provide any guidance to Alabama probate judges on the effect of Obergefell on the existing orders of the Alabama Supreme Court. That issue remains before the entire [Alabama Supreme] Court which continues to deliberate on the matter.” Read more

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Ethics Complaint Over AL Judge and Near-Demand for Blood

Judge Marvin Wiggins, a rural circuit judge in Alabama, recently came close to ordering offenders in his courtroom who owed payments to give blood at a nearby blood drive or get handcuffed, a New York Times article says. 

The Southern Poverty Law Center has filed an ethics complaint against the judge and labeled the proceeding unconstitutional. The saga was spotlighted at a time of debate nationwide about court and local government efforts to get revenue by collecting fines for lesser offenses.

“If you don’t have any money, go out there and give blood and bring in a receipt indicating you gave blood,” the judge said. If an offender could not pay or declined to give blood, “The sheriff has enough handcuffs,” he said. Read more

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Watchdog Group Accuses Alabama Justice of Ethics Violation

The Southern Poverty Law Center has accused a second member of the Alabama Supreme Court, Justice Tom Parker, of violating judicial ethics, in this case by talking on a radio program about a case before the court involving same-sex marriage.

Earlier this year the watchdog organization filed a complaint against Chief Justice Roy Moore of the Alabama court (see Gavel Grab). The latest complaint, according to a Montgomery Advertiser article, “also accuses Parker of suggesting the state could resist the U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision legalizing same-sex marriage throughout the country.”

The complaint was filed with the Judicial Inquiry Commission of Alabama, according to WSFA 12 News. Parker, in a statement, dismissed the complaint. “This SPLC complaint is, like nearly everything that comes out of that organization, frivolous and not worthy of comment,” he said. 

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Opinion: ‘Staggering Price’ for Inadequate AL Court Funding

There is a “staggering price in dollars and in human life” as a result of Alabama legislators inadequately funding an overburdened judicial system, activist Clete Wetli warns in an Al.com opinion. He commends Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore for standing up for adequate court funding.

“Tragically,” Wetli explains, “the concept of a speedy trial has become a punchline in a bad joke as we continue to ask our municipal, district, and circuit court judges to do the impossible with larger caseloads, less staff, and fewer community resources. To add insult to injury, the revenue raised by the court system goes just about everywhere else instead of actually funding the court system, which is forced to beg the legislature for adequate support staff or modest cost-of-living increases.”

Wetli concludes, “Our ‘hung-jury’ legislators need to wake up and realize that the only verdict that makes sense is to increase funding to our court system.”

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Probate Judge Defends Chief Justice Moore, Urges Defiant Vote

alabama-flag-descriptionAn Alabama probate judge is urging the state’s highest court to defy the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent marriage equality ruling and for Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who has recused himself, to cast a vote.

Washington County Probate Judge Nick Williams also staunchly defended Moore against an ethics complaint recently lodged by the Southern Poverty Law Center (see Gavel Grab for background), saying the complaint appeared aimed at influencing the Alabama justices and that it should not have been made public, according to an Al.com article.

Moore has argued publicly against marriage for same-sex couples and in February, he ordered Alabama probate judges to ignore a federal court ruling that had declared the state’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. He has attracted widespread national media attention for his outspoken views. Read more

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