Alabama Scene

Justice still for sale to the highest bidder in Alabama



This past week The Birmingham News editorialized about the obscene practice Alabama and a few other states in the nation still have that forces judicial candidates to raise money to be elected and then allows them to rule on court cases that involve those from whom the judges have sought and received campaign money.

The practice simply does not pass the proverbial smell test for integrity of any sort, and I applaud the News’s editorial writers for bringing this issue back to the forefront. They brought it to our attention again because of a federal lawsuit and the mention of a 16-year-old law passed at the urging of former Gov. Fob James and drafted with the help of Mobile attorney Champ Lyons, who later was appointed by James as his legal advisor and then to a seat on the state’s highest court.

The statute would have placed disclosure requirements of political contributors on all state judges and required recusals by the judge or judges to which the case was assigned in some instances if the contribution exceeded certain amounts by a single individual or entity.

The statute also required the Supreme Court to establish rules to implement the law’s provisions. As those of you who read this column know, I worked for the courts in my previous career and was one of the officials designated to review Fob’s proposed legislation. Under the federal civil rights laws, state statutes dealing in almost any way with voting rights and elections in Alabama must be sent for review to the U.S. Department of Justice by the state attorney general.

My impression and suggestion at the time was that the statute Fob proposed was so disjointed there was no way to enforce it. Besides, candidates were required to file campaign contribution reports so whoever contributed to them was already an open book plus the law would have created unnecessary paperwork and delay in the judicial process.

For some reason, about which I have never been apprised, this statute has never been sent to the Justice Department for preclearance by any of our attorneys general. It is not something that needs to be resurrected now or ever without significant revision. I actually have wondered why Lyons, during his tenure on the high court, didn’t revisit that legislation he helped draft. Perhaps he came, belatedly, to the same conclusion I did.

I worked for the court system through all the James administrations. Fob despised the courts and judges, and this legislation, along with other proposals during his years, was meant primarily to disrupt the court system and the State Supreme Court, which actually bailed him out several times, once when he failed to get a package of crime bills to the secretary of state on time.

Nonetheless, something needs to be done about Justice for Sale in Alabama. In the past 10 years, Alabama Supreme Court candidates raised close to $41 million, according to the nonprofit Justice at Stake, which works to keep courts fair and impartial. That was by far the most in any state. Other campaign fund-trackers have put the amount raised in Alabama during that period at closer to $50 million. This high stakes justice game is one of the reasons Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb gave for leaving the court this week to return to private life.

The News concludes that the “amount of money being spent on Alabama’s judicial races signals to voters that judges and justices have potentially huge conflicts of interest in some of the cases they hear. All those dollars fuel the perception justice is for sale to the highest bidder.”

As I have written previously, we need to take judges off the campaign trail and provide an initial system of appointments with a fixed term and require judges to face the voters at intervals in retention elections. We do not need to provide new life to Fob’s 1995 legislation. Memo to Gov. Bentley

Don’t let BP off the hook.

There are now “tar mats” just off Alabama’s coast. We have all known that the oil would settle at the bottom and that when the Gulf waters get choppy, that oil will be broken up and probably be pushed ashore.

Workers and observers in Gulf Shores say they know the presence of tar remains from the oil spill because tar balls continue to float ashore every day.

About 10 days ago, there were reports of a huge tar mat just west of Little Lagoon Pass. I have read that at least four have been at or near the coastline in Gulf Shores.

It is important that we never let up on BP. For all of us who love and try to protect our little bit of paradise, please keep BP on the top of your memo list.

Bob Martin is editor and publisher of The Montgomery Independent. Email him at: