Senate Sketches #880

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 13, 2004

We were arranged around the half moon table that dominates the front end of the Finance and Taxation Committee Room.

Some 13 Senators and the committee clerk filled the fourteen seats.

The audience, a collection of citizens including lobbyists and lawyers, filled the remainder of the room.

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Yet, the people were quiet as they listened to the debate raging amongst committee members.

I arrived late so I weaved my way through those standing along the wall and in the passageway.

I took my seat, anxiously waiting while listening with intense interest.

I was interested because the issue involved the Alabama Supreme Court.

I was anxious because I had to make a critical meeting on the Education Budget in less than 30 minutes.

The debate went back and forth.

Republicans were generally against the bill.

Democrats were generally for it.

Only whites were against it while a mixture of whites and blacks were for it.

I wanted to speak but I held back because I did not want to do anything to delay the voting.

I wanted to cast my vote before I left, helping to insure a favorable report from the Judiciary Committee.

The Alabama Supreme Court rules the judicial roost in Alabama.

Many view it as the most political Supreme Court to ever sit in Alabama, or, according to some, any where in the United States of America.

Many view the Alabama Supreme Court as bending over backward for the rich while at every turn kicking the average Alabamian, and especially the poor.

Others view this Supreme Court as the best to ever sit in Alabama.

These are matters of opinion with every opinion containing many sides.

There are, however, hard facts.

It is a fact that the Alabama Supreme Court is uniracial in a multiracial State with nine whites and not one African-American or any from other racial groups.

It is a fact that the Alabama Supreme Court is predominantly male with seven men and two women in a state that is majority female. It is a fact that the Alabama Supreme Court is overwhelmingly of one political party with eight Republicans and one Democrat in a state that is evenly divided between Republicans, Democrats and independents.

It’s a fact that four of the male justices live in the Southern Tip of Alabama in Mobile and Baldwin Counties, while two hail from Tuscaloosa with none residing north of Birmingham.

This Court does not even remotely resemble the roost it rules.

For 22 years, from 1980 to 2002, there was at least one African-American on the Alabama Supreme Court and from 2000 to 2002 there were two. Now there are none.

Since Alabama became a true two party state, there has been a substantial mixture of Republicans and Democrats on the court.

Now the Court is lopsided in it make up and, in the opinion of many, equally lopsided in the justice it dispenses or fails to dispense.

The bill before the Judiciary Committee with both white and black members and chaired by Senator Roger Smitherman, is a constitutional amendment.

Therefore, the people of Alabama will vote “yes” or “no” if it passes the Legislature.

This bill, sponsored by Senator Myron Penn, would have eight of the nine Alabama Supreme Court justices run from districts.

The ninth, the Chief Justice, would run statewide.

The districts would be the same as for the Alabama State School Board which is currently represented by four Republicans and four Democrat, six Whites and two African-Americans and women are very well represented.

The Governor makes the ninth member of the State Board for a majority Republican Board.

Pointed arguments were made by Judiciary Committee members on both sides of the issue.

Some said it now costs an average of $1.5 million to run state-wide for the Alabama Supreme Court and running in district would drastically cut down on this huge sum.

Others said that the same sum would be spent in one district because the Supreme Court positions are so important.

Some said better candidates would come forth because the difficulties of running an expensive and time consuming statewide race would be greatly reduced.

Others said the difficulties would be just as great even though they ran in districts 1/8 the size in population and varying but much smaller land areas.

Some said we would have a better opportunity of knowing our Supreme Court candidates and eventually the court’s members.

Others said naught on this point.

Some said we would have greater fairness if all areas of the state were represented by districts. Others said we would have less fairness because justices might favor litigants from their districts.

The arguments went back and forth.

Finally, with the time drawing near for me to leave for the meeting on the Education Budget, I could no longer withhold myself from the verbal battle. When I was recognized, I made several points.

I will, however, share only one with you because space is limited.

This is the point I made.

There is always room to differ, especially about the laws that govern us.

How we perceive those differences is not based on what is written in the law so much as what is in our perceptions.

We must never forget that we do not just see and hear through our senses of sight and hearing, but also through our hopes and fears, our needs and desires, our loves and hates, our victories and defeats, our varied and differing experiences.

All those perceptions should be at the table as conclusions are drawn and decisions made about our laws and the justice or injustice implemented.

A diverse Supreme Court elected from districts would provide opportunities for these perceptions to be challenged, debated and tested on the verbal field of battle.

We need geographical diversity, we need gender diversity, we need philosophical diversity and we need racial diversity in the court that rules the roast.

Districts would allow such diversity and more importantly, something much closer to justice in this state we call Alabama.

In my opinion, not one vote was changed based upon any argument made but we were all heard and that is important.

The Judiciary Committee reported the bill favorably by a vote of 10-3 and I was on my way to the meeting about the Education Budget.