The slow-moving federal court challenge to Alabama’s method of electing its appellate judges reached another milestone on Wednesday, when the parties gave their final arguments in a case filed back in 2016.
The Alabama State Conference of the NAACP is arguing that the Alabama’s method of at-large voting for state appellate courts impermissibly dilutes the votes of African-American voters, in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act. As evidence, the plaintiffs point to the fact that no black candidate has ever been elected to the state’s civil or criminal appellate courts, and only two have been elected to the state supreme court. The state has countered that standard party politics, not race, provides the best explanation for the election outcomes.
A federal judge denied the state’s motion to dismiss the case, and held a bench trial last November. After a lengthy delay brought on by the state’s appeal to the Eleventh Circuit on the denial of the motion to dismiss, the trial court held oral arguments to conclude the bench trial this week.
There is no indication when the judge will issue his decision. But whatever his final ruling, this case is a nice example of how life tenure shields him from some of the inevitable political fallout that will result from any decision he makes. If only his counterparts on the state bench enjoyed that same freedom from political pressure. But as both sides in the case made clear on Wednesday, viewing judges as politicians seems to be par for the course in Alabama.
Almost five years ago, a local branch of the NAACP in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, sued state officials in federal court, arguing that the state’s “at-large” system for electing judges systematically disenfranchised minority voters. After a trial in 2017, the federal district court agreed with the plaintiffs that the existing election scheme was unconstitutional. But the parties could not agree on the appropriate remedy, so the judge has asked both sides to suggest candidates for a special master, who will assist the judge in crafting an appropriate remedy.
“The parties didn’t agree on a remedy and the Legislature didn’t pass a remedy, so now it’s the court’s obligation to come up with a remedy,” [NAACP attorney Leah] Aden said on Saturday. “The court isn’t an expert in drawing maps. Judge Dick wants to do everything by the book, so she’s going to hire someone who’s familiar with drawing maps to aid her as an expert to evaluate the maps that we put up and potentially draw their own map. This person is basically a technical expert.”
A federal judge gave the state Legislature the first opportunity to remedy Terrebonne’s voting system, but the only proposed bill during the 2018 session died in committee.
This has been a fascinating case for observing how one sovereign’s judiciary (the federal courts) addresses fundamental issues pertaining to another (a state court system). It will be equally interesting to see how the final resolution plays out.
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.