New developments in lawsuits concerning judicial elections in Alabama and Arkansas

Two lawsuits involving judicial elections–one each in Alabama and Arkansas–were the subject of new developments this past week.

In Alabama, the NAACP and Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the state’s method of electing state appellate judges discriminates against African-American voters. The lawsuit claims that the absence of black judges on any state appellate court is the result of discriminatory vote dilution tactics. The state moved to dismiss the case on the grounds of sovereign immunity, but U.S. District Judge W. Keith Watkins denied the motion to dismiss, and set the case for a bench trial. Attorneys for the state have now taken their case to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, asking that court to overturn Judge Watkins’s refusal to dismiss the case.

The Arkansas case involved a controversial attack ad against incumbent state judge Courtney Goodson, who was seeking reelection. The Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative group, had been running the ad on several stations in northwest Arkansas when a county judge barred its further broadcast in May. The corporate owner of a Little Rock television station appealed the injunction. But last week, the state court of appeals ruled that the issue was now moot, since Justice Goodson has won reelection, and the ad was no longer airing. The issue may be moot for now, but the larger issues–prior restraint of political speech, the influence of “dark money” in elections, and the wisdom of electing judges in any event–remain.

Sitting Alabama justices endorse candidate in upcoming partisan primary

Here is something I have never seen before. Seven sitting and former justices of the Alabama Supreme Court publicly endorsed Chief Justice Lyn Stuart in this week’s upcoming Republican primary. Stuart replaced former Chief Justice Roy Moore after he was suspended in 2016; she is now seeking a full term.

There are a number of unusual circumstances here. Stuart stepped into a difficult position after the Moore suspension, and obviously won the support of her colleagues. And her opponent, Associate Justice Tom Parker, is a close associate of Moore. It is likely good politics to place the more moderate Stuart in the partisan general election against a Democratic challenger. Parker seems to be a mini-Moore when it comes to inciting controversy.

But this is still a highly unusual move. Judges generally stay away from political endorsements or similar activity, for fear of comprising their legitimacy as nonpartisan arbiters of the law. Moreover, the the sitting justices here chose between two colleagues on the bench. That will make for an awkward summer around the courthouse. And what if the Democratic candidate wins the general election? (Unlikely in Alabama, but we know it can happen.)

Partisan elections places judges and judicial candidates in countless compromising positions. Here is another piece of evidence to that effect.

White House withdraws two federal district court nominees

Two of President Trump’s nominees for federal district judgeships have been withdrawn.  Brett Talley, a nominee for the bench in Alabama, and Jeff Mateer, nominated for the bench in Texas, will not advance.

Talley drew particular criticism over the last several months for his personal conflicts and clear lack of qualifications. The 36-year-old Justice Department attorney has only practiced law for three years and has never tried a case — a monumental shortcoming for a trial court nominee. Talley also failed to disclose that he was married to a White House lawyer, or that he had previously made controversial statements about death row inmates. (Of less direct importance, but no less head-scratching, was the additional revelation that Talley is a “ghost hunter.”) The ABA rated him “unqualified.”

Separately, Mateer came under fire for his statements on homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and transgender children.

The withdrawals come on the heels of Senator Chuck Grassley’s recommendation that the White House “reconsider” both nominations.

On paying disgraced judges

Roy Moore, the disgraced judge turned disgraceful Senate candidate, received good news recently when the Retirement Systems of Alabama (RSA) Board approved his $135,000 annual pension, representing 75% of his annual salary before he was suspended from his duties as Alabama Chief Justice in September 2016.  The RSA Board indicated that it has no legal authority to reject or change a judge’s pension.  Moore qualified for the pension under state law due to his previous years of service and age at the time he was suspended.

Meanwhile in Washington, Senator Charles Grassley recalled ex-judge Thomas Porteous’s efforts to fleece taxpayers with his own retirement pension. Porteous was impeached and removed from office in 2010 for taking bribes and engaging in a variety of corrupt acts. Shortly before he was impeached, Porteous tried to claim disability retirement in order to secure a lifetime annual salary of nearly $175,000.

No one could be blamed for wanting to deny retirement payments to judges whose conduct in office was reprehensible, as was the case (in different ways) for Moore and Porteous. The counterargument is that reprehensible conduct cannot be clearly defined, and the ability to remove benefits will become a weapon against judicial independence. Where and how should we draw the line?

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Former federal judge to run for U.S. Senate

Russell Fagg, who recently retired from a life-appointed position as a United States District Judge in Montana, announced yesterday that he will seek the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate from that state. The winner will oppose incumbent Jon Tester in 2018.

Judge Fagg is hardly the first jurist to seek a position in another branch of government — former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore recently won the Republican Senate nomination in that state, and another former Alabama Chief Justice, Sue Bell Cobb, is running for governor. In the other direction, many Supreme Court Justices (among them John Jay, William Howard Taft, Hugo Black, and Sandra Day O’Connor) came to the bench after extensive careers in the executive and/or legislative branches.

Judge Fagg is touting his judicial experience — more than 25,000 cases during a 22-year career. And there is something to be said for having a jurist’s mindset in the legislature — one that is capable of coolly and dispassionately evaluating complicated matters. Of course, having that mindset does not mean that one will use it, and the Senate has not exactly been a paragon of reasoned deliberation in recent years. But it will be interesting to see whether — and how — Montana voters account for Judge Fagg’s third branch experience as the race heats up.

 

White House announces eleven new district court nominees

President Trump nominated eleven people to federal district judgeships yesterday, covering districts in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Tennessee.  Once again, I am struck by the nominees’ breadth of experience. The group of eleven includes five attorneys in private practice, three state court judges, one United States Magistrate Judge, one law professor, and one state legislator.  Several of the nominees have practice experience in both the government and the private sector.

As a general matter, I have been very impressed with the quality of judicial nominees coming from the administration.  Hopefully Congress will hold swift confirmation hearings on the nominees and begin to cure the severe vacancy crisis in our federal district courts.

Former Alabama Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb throws her hat into Governor’s race

Sue Bell Cobb, who served as Chief Justice of Alabama from 2007 to 2011, announced last week that she is running for Governor of the state.  She becomes the second Alabama Chief Justice in as many months to seek an elected position in another branch.

Cobb has considerable campaign experience from her days on the judiciary.  In 2006, she was involved in the most expensive judicial race in the nation, spending more than $2.6 million to win the Chief Justiceship.  Since leaving the court, she has spoken out against money in judicial politics, although not against judicial elections themselves.

Two additional observations.  First, Cobb appears to be a deeply religious woman, and her announcement and website are rife with religious themes.  Those same themes came through during her 2006 judicial campaign.

Second, Cobb had this to say about her retirement from the court system in 2011: “My chief obligation as the top administrator of the court system was to secure adequate funding from the legislature for the judiciary. I became very concerned that, because of the partisanship within the legislature, I would be unable to succeed in that most important responsibility.”

It will be interesting to see if, and how, these themes manifest themselves in the upcoming gubernatorial race.