Back in the late 1990s when Roy Moore was a local judge in Etowah County, Ala., he was sued by the American Civil Liberties Union for opening courtroom sessions with prayer and displaying a hand-carved Ten Commandments monument in his courtroom.
Moore had garnered national attention with his vow to defy any ruling against him, and his defenders thought the time was right to bring him to Washington, D.C., for a press conference.
I attended the event and had the opportunity to ask Moore a question. I don’t remember the exact wording of our exchange, but it went something like this:
“You’re a judge,” I said. “What would you do if, after you handed down a ruling, one of the parties to the case announced that he or she would ignore it?”
“I’d hold them in contempt,” Moore declared.
“Then why shouldn’t you be held in contempt?” I asked.
What followed was a typical Moore rant about “God’s law” and how people had no obligation to follow court orders that violated that standard and so on. I walked away from the press conference convinced that “God’s law” and Roy Moore’s opinions were synonymous in his mind – which must be very convenient for him.
Roy Moore received a hero's welcome at the Religious Right's Values Voter Summit.
I thought about that long-ago exchange when news broke last week that Moore stands accused of molesting a 14-year-old girl when he was 32. I’ve known for a long time that Moore is a man of shady ethics – he has been running a grift through nonprofit groups for years, using money that people donated to a small Religious Right group he ran to pay himself a handsome salary – so evidence of a sex scandal didn’t really surprise me.
The day of that press conference, I learned something about Moore that I’ve not forgotten over the 20 years I’ve followed his career: Moore sees himself as above the law; he believes he has the right to pick and choose which ones he’ll follow.
Americans United got a taste of this in 1997 when we litigated a case against public school districts in DeKalb and Talladega counties. The districts were promoting religion in various ways, including sponsoring prayers led by students and clergy in classrooms, during school assemblies, at graduations and before sporting events.
A federal court ruled in our favor in the case, and Moore, then still a local judge, issued a bizarre order attempting to nullify the decision. It’s important to remember that this lawsuit had been filed in a federal court. Moore’s court had nothing to do with it. His order only confused things as the case proceeded through the federal system, resulting in a final ruling favorable to AU and its clients.
Stunts like this spread Moore’s fame throughout the state. In 2000, he won election as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court.
The rest of the story is well known: Once on the high court bench, Moore arranged for a two-and-a-half-ton Ten Commandments monument to be erected at the judicial building in Montgomery. Americans United, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center joined forces and sued him, and we won. Two federal courts ruled against Moore. He promptly defied a federal appeals court and announced he would not remove the monument.
After an Alabama judicial oversight body removed Moore from the court, he spent a few years knocking around the Religious Right’s rubber chicken circuit and trying to get elected governor of Alabama. When that failed, he ran successfully for his old job again in 2012.
History soon repeated itself. In January 2016, Moore issued an “administrative order” instructing probate judges in Alabama to ignore the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges that had the effect of legalizing marriage for same-sex couples nationwide.
Americans United and allied groups at the time were representing clients from the LGBTQ community who sought the right to marry. The federal judge overseeing our case, Strawser v. Strange, had little patience for Moore’s stunts and made it clear that Alabama must abide by the Obergefell ruling.
For the second time, Moore had once again defied a higher court. Complaints were filed against him, and the same Alabama judicial oversight body took up Moore’s case again, voting to suspend him from the state high court.
Over the years, Moore has been involved with various legal defense funds and nonprofit groups. He has twice been accused of financial improprieties. In 1999, Alabama’s Ethics Commission voted 5-0 to refer a complaint against Moore to the attorney general’s office. He was accused of receiving personal benefit from a legal defense fund his supporters created. Alabama’s attorney general at the time, Bill Pryor, was a Moore ally. To no one’s surprise, Moore was cleared.
More recently, The Washington Post revealed in October that Moore had received an annual salary of $180,000 for part-time work at the Foundation for Moral Law, a nonprofit group Moore founded, despite once saying he didn’t receive a salary from the group. The Post reported Moore collected more than $1 million over six years as the foundation’s president, compensation that far surpassed what the group disclosed in its public tax filings most of those years. Experts in nonprofit tax law called the arrangement troubling.
Jerry Falwell Jr., Tim Wildmon of the American Family Association, Mathew Staver of Liberty Counsel and other Religious Right figures have raced to defend Moore against the charges of sexual impropriety. Some of his defenders are making really offensive arguments. In Alabama, State Auditor Jim Zeigler told the Washington Examiner, “[T]ake Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus. There’s just nothing immoral or illegal here. Maybe just a little bit unusual.”
Moore’s defenders insist this is all a scheme cooked up by liberals in the media to bring Moore down. That overlooks the fact that Moore’s chief accuser, Leigh Corfman, is hardly a tool of political progressives. She’s a Republican who voted for Donald Trump last year. The fact that Moore himself, in an interview with Sean Hannity that consisted mostly of softball questions, said he could not remember if he pursued teenage girls for dates when he was 32 doesn’t help his case.
It’s a tawdry affair but hardly surprising. Moore believes he is above the law, and his moral compass is like that of many right-wing fundamentalists these days: It spins wildly in whatever direction promises to provide an avenue to political power but provides no useful guidance for ethical behavior.
A recent poll of white evangelicals in Alabama showed that they were more likely to vote for Moore since the story broke. It’s further proof that supporters of the Religious Right, who are normally so quick to judge others, are morally adrift. They look to Moore as a leader, and he may, in fact, take them somewhere – but be assured that it’s a place where lots of Americans, including teenage girls, won’t be treated with even a modicum of respect or common decency.