On Sept. 28, members of the Alabama Court of the Judiciary, a body that provides oversight of judges in the state, met for some unusual proceedings: The state’s chief justice, Roy S. Moore, was on trial – for the second time.
The nine members of the court spent a day hearing evidence. They had 10 days to issue a decision, but apparently this wasn’t a hard case. Two days later, the court issued a unanimous verdict: Moore was found guilty of six counts and suspended from the Alabama high court, without pay, for the remainder of his term. He was also ordered to reimburse the state for the cost of the trial.
Technically Moore was not removed from office, but the decision has the same effect. Moore, 69, is suspended for the rest of his term, which would have expired in 2018, and he can’t run again because Alabama law prohibits anyone older than 70 from being appointed to or elected to the bench.
As Americans United was quick to point out, Moore has no one but himself to blame for his predicament. His problems stemmed from his rigid theocratic views and his insistence that Alabama is somehow not required to follow federal court decisions.
It’s an old argument for Moore. In 2001, Americans United, the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama and the Southern Poverty Law Center sued Moore after he erected a two-ton Ten Commandments monument at the Judicial Building in Montgomery.
A federal appeals court ordered that the religious structure be removed. Moore refused, openly defying the court. He was tried before the Court of the Judiciary and kicked off the Alabama high court.
But that wasn’t the end of Moore. Supreme Court justices in Alabama are elected, and in 2012, Moore sought and won his old job back.
It didn’t take him long to get into trouble again. As federal courts began upholding marriage equality, Moore grew uneasy. When the issue came to the Yellowhammer State, he threw a kind of judicial fit.
The court case that legalized marriage equality in Alabama didn’t even play out in Moore’s courtroom. It took place in a federal court. U.S. District Judge Callie V. Granade struck down Alabama’s ban on marriage between same-sex couples in January of 2015, in a case brought by Americans United and allied groups.
The fact that the case wasn’t in his courtroom didn’t stop Moore from jumping into the legal fray. He looked for a way to interject himself into it and wrote to Gov. Robert Bentley (R), urging him to continue to enforce the state’s ban on marriage equality. In the letter, Moore questioned the ability of federal courts to strike down Alabama laws.
Things really escalated in June of 2015 when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down Obergefell v. Hodges, a 5-4 decision holding that same-sex couples have a right to marry under the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. The ruling had the effect of invalidating bans on marriage for same-sex couples nationwide, but Moore was not ready to give up.
Moore waited a few months and then struck. In January of 2016, he acted unilaterally and issued a bizarre “administrative order” advising all probate judges in Alabama that the ban on marriage for same-sex couples in the state remained in place.
In Alabama, probate judges are local officials with a variety of duties. Among them is issuing licenses for couples who want to marry. Despite the use of the term “judge” in the title, not all probate judges have a legal background – and some were confused by Moore’s order.
Americans United moved quickly to clear up the matter, filing a motion with Granade requesting that she make it clear that probate judges in Alabama must follow the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell. Granade did so. Most probate judges in the state are now issuing licenses to same-sex couples, although a few have stopped issuing licenses to all couples – opposite-sex and same-sex – rather than comply.
Moore’s stunt led several groups and individuals in Alabama to file formal complaints against him before the Judicial Inquiry Commission. That group investigated the matter, decided there were grounds for a hearing and referred Moore’s case to the Court of the Judiciary.
Moore’s attorney, Mat Staver of Liberty Counsel, a Religious Right legal organization, tried to stop the trial by filing a lawsuit in federal court challenging the right of the oversight bodies to investigate Moore. When that tactic failed, Moore and Staver had no choice but to attend the trial and put forth an argument.
It was not very persuasive. The Court of the Judiciary issued a 50-page ruling against Moore and ordered him suspended from the court.
The court didn’t mince words. It ruled that Moore’s brazen administrative order represented “a failure to follow clear law and a failure to uphold the integrity and independence of the judiciary.”
The Court of the Judiciary found that Moore interpreted the law in a manner that was “incomplete, misleading and manipulative.” The court also said Moore “substituted his judgment for the judgment of the entire Alabama Supreme Court on a substantive legal issue….”
For Americans United, this was all very familiar. AU has been tangling with Moore since 1997 when, as a local judge in Etowah County, Moore attempted to nullify a federal court ruling in an Americans United case barring officially sanctioned prayer and other religious activities in local public schools.
At the time, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn called Moore’s ruling, which he had no legal right to issue, “flat-earth jurisprudence.”
That same year, Moore provoked a legal showdown in his courtroom by displaying a wooden plaque of the Ten Commandments. Alabama’s governor at the time, Fob James, vowed to defend Moore’s display by calling out the National Guard.
“[T]he only way those Ten Commandments … will be stripped from that court is with the force of arms,” James blustered.
Moore used the Ten Commandments controversy to boost his profile in the state. In November of 2000, he was elected to the Alabama Supreme Court for the first time. He wasn’t on the state high court long before he commissioned a Ten Commandments monument for the Judicial Building.
What became known as “Roy’s rock” was a two-ton granite monument displayed prominently in the building’s lobby. When challenged in court, it did not fare well. Two federal courts ordered the monument removed. Moore refused.
Moore’s defiance didn’t sit well with the federal appeals court. Eventually workers came to remove the monument, which was put into storage for a time. Religious Right groups later took it on the road, where Moore’s fans stood in line to see and touch it.
Meanwhile, Moore was out of a job. He roamed the Religious Right’s rubber-chicken circuit for a bit and penned some truly awful poetry. (Sample lines: “You think that God’s not angry, that our land’s a moral slum?/How much longer will it be before His judgment comes?”)
Moore was floated as a possible presidential candidate by the far-right Constitution Party in 2004, but chose not to run. He had his eye on another prize: the governor’s mansion. Moore ran for Alabama governor in 2006 and 2010, faring poorly both times. In 2006 he captured 33 percent of the vote in the Republican primary. In 2010, he did worse, getting just 10 percent.
Moore kept busy in other ways. He and his wife founded a group called the Foundation for Moral Law, and Moore drafted a proposed piece of federal legislation called the Constitution Restoration Act that would have stripped federal courts of their ability to hear cases dealing with any “acknowledgment of God as the sovereign source of law, liberty, or government.”
The bill was introduced in the U.S. House and Senate in 2005, but it didn’t go anywhere.
What’s next for Moore? Staver insists that he will file an appeal of the Court of the Judiciary’s decision before the Alabama Supreme Court. Moore tried the same thing in 2003. A special panel of judges was convened to sit as the court. They affirmed the Court of the Judiciary’s ruling.
Americans United says this should be the end of the line for Moore.
“The people of Alabama are better off without Roy Moore on the court,” said AU’s Lynn in a media statement. “He is an embarrassment to the state, and his antics long ago became tiresome.”