Roy Moore's Ethics Trial: What Now, What Next

Sep 27, 2016

Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore is set to appear in court tomorrow morning. He’s facing judicial ethics violations that could result in his removal from the state Supreme Court. The charges date back to the legal controversy and confusion over same-sex marriage in Alabama earlier this year, and Moore’s personal battle against it.

Chief Justice Moore has some history with this court. In 2003, he was removed from office for unrelated judicial ethics violations. APR’s Alex AuBuchon has the latest on Chief Justice Moore’s case and what to expect tomorrow.

“What has he done? He’s upheld the law. The voters vote, and the legislators make law, and the judges uphold the law, they protect the law, they make opinions.”

At a hearing last month at the Alabama Judicial Building in Montgomery, Roy Moore received a very warm welcome. Dozens of supporters gathered to cheer on the Chief Justice for standing up for supreme law. One of the loudest voices was that of Johnny Brekeen. He travelled from Mississippi to lend his support to the Chief Justice’s cause.

Alan Hoyle also traveled to show his support, all the way from North Carolina.

“This here is in defiance to the sovereign people of Alabama and the constitution of Alabama which says that marriage is between a man and a woman. When someone goes against the constitution, it’s called treason.”

At issue in this case is Chief Justice Moore’s defiant stance against the legalization of same-sex marriage in Alabama. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry anywhere in the United States.

Back in January, Chief Justice Moore issued an administrative order to all 68 of the state’s probate judges. He told them that Alabama’s ban on same-sex marriage remained in effect.

The Southern Poverty Law Center says Moore encouraged those judges to disobey federal law. SPLC President Richard Cohen says there’s more to it than just ignoring the Supreme Court.

“The federal court judge in the Southern District of Alabama had issued an injunction binding against all of the probate judges saying they must issue marriage licenses on a non-discriminatory basis. They were under a federal court order to do just the opposite of what Justice Moore was urging them to do.”

The SPLC is leading the charge against Moore. But the Chief Justice argues he wasn’t trying to tell the probate judges what to do. He says all he wanted was to make sure the judges were aware of the status of the case, since the Alabama Supreme Court had not given any direction in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision on gay marriage. Here’s Moore’s attorney Mat Staver during a statement after last month’s hearing:

“He says that the orders that the Alabama Supreme Court issued in March of 2015 are still outstanding, and the Alabama Supreme Court is going to review those, which they are, and make a decision, which they did, later, in March. That’s all he said. And for that, they ultimately charged him with advocating open defiant disobedience to the entire judiciary, beginning with the United States Supreme Court and on down.”

During that statement, Moore said there was nothing in his order that encouraged probate judges to disobey federal law.

“In fact, I said I’m not at liberty to give you guidance. That’s the Alabama Supreme Court that gives you guidance. Furthermore, I addressed the confusion that was caused by the delay in this court’s ruling. And I said until the Alabama Supreme Court rules, this order remains in full force and effect. That is law.”

One of Alabama’s probate judges sees it a little differently. Steven Reed is the Probate Judge for Montgomery County.

“Not only encouraged, he directed probate judges to do that. And that’s why we decided to ignore it. That’s why I thought it was a sad and pathetic attempt on his part to disrupt the legal process, and that’s why I think you saw some other probate judges who did the same.”

Richard Cohen says some, but not all.

“I think he sowed some confusion in their ranks, and a number of probate judges stopped issuing marriage licenses altogether, which I think was quite unfortunate for the people who lived in those counties.”

Chief Justice Moore has a history with the Judicial Inquiry Commission and the Alabama Court of the Judiciary. In 2003, he was kicked out of office for refusing to remove a statue of the Ten Commandments from the state judicial building. Cohen thinks this infraction is far worse.

“…because he’s urged 68 probate judges to defy a federal court order. And I think it’s cowardly for him to hide behind the claim that he didn’t really order them to do anything, when the reality is he did just that.”

Now it’s up to the Alabama Court of the Judiciary to decide whether Chief Justice Moore’s behavior warrants removal from the state Supreme Court for a second time.

Then the question becomes ‘What next?’ SPLC President Richard Cohen didn’t want to personally speculate, but he said he had heard Moore was vying for a bid either for governor or attorney general.

Probate Judge Steven Reed was less coy.

“I believe within the year we’ll see an announcement for governor, and I believe that will be something the Republican Party in Alabama will have to deal with themselves. I’m not a member of that party, so I’ll leave that up to them. But I don’t think there’s any question that if he’s removed, that we’ll see him back on the political landscape. And I think that’s what this was all about to begin with.”

Regardless of whether Moore is removed from the bench, Alabama law will force his hand soon. If he remains in office, the Chief Justice’s seat will come up for re-election in 2018. Despite a recent amendment effort, the state constitution says no one older than 70 can run for Chief Justice. Moore will be 71 at that time.

So regardless of how tomorrow’s trial turns out, it’s assured that Chief Justice Roy Moore has at least one eye somewhere other than the Supreme Court.