By David Roach
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (BP) — With Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore set to stand trial next month on charges he defied federal court rulings on same-sex marriage, a legal adviser to Alabama Baptists’ public policy auxiliary has called the allegations against him unmerited.
At issue in Moore’s case is a Jan. 6 administrative order in which he stated Alabama’s 68 probate judges had “a ministerial duty not to issue any marriage licenses contrary to” the state’s ban on same-sex marriage until the Alabama Supreme Court clarified the relationship between state law and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage.
The Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission (JIC) alleges in a 293-page complaint that Moore “failed to respect and comply with the law,” citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell ruling among other cases.
The JIC seeks to have Moore, a Southern Baptist, removed from office.
Yesterday (Aug. 8), the Alabama Court of the Judiciary, a state panel that disciplines judges, denied both a motion from the JIC to remove Moore from office immediately and a motion by Moore to dismiss the complaint. A trial is set for Sept. 28, when a nine-judge panel will decide whether Moore violated judicial ethics and, if so, what penalty to impose.
Eric Johnston, an attorney who advises the Alabama Citizens Action Program, an auxiliary of the Alabama Baptist Convention, told Baptist Press, “By and large, most people in Alabama would agree with Moore on his position. I think it’s real clear that the marriage issue and his stand on it is what brought this [complaint] on. It’s almost like it’s vengeance by those that won the marriage issue in Alabama.”
If Moore is removed from office, it will be his second time to face that penalty.
After being elected chief justice for the first time in 2000, he was removed from office in 2003 for refusing to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the Alabama Judicial Building. He was elected chief justice for a second time in 2012 but, according to a state constitutional provision, is serving an automatic suspension from the bench pending the outcome of his case.
The current complaint against Moore has drawn involvement from organizations on both sides of the same-sex marriage debate.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a nonprofit legal group that defends so-called homosexual rights among other causes, filed the initial complaint against Moore earlier this year. The JIC then hired John Carroll, a former SPLC legal director, as co-prosecutor of the case.
Carroll also is professor of law at Cumberland School of Law at Samford University, affiliated with the Alabama Baptist Convention.
During an Aug. 8 hearing before the Alabama Court of the Judiciary, Carroll said Moore has engaged in “repeated refusal to follow the law,” the Associated Press reported. The chief justice abused his power in service of a personal agenda that opposes same-sex marriage, Carroll said.
Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit legal group that defends religious liberty, is representing Moore. At yesterday’s hearing, Liberty Counsel founder and chairman Mat Staver argued Moore’s administrative order merely provided clarification to probate judges, AP reported.
The order did not tell probate judges to violate a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Liberty Counsel argued in a news release. The order explicitly stated, “I am not at liberty to provide any guidance to Alabama probate judges on the effect of Obergefell on the existing orders of that Alabama Supreme Court.”
Staver stated according to the release, “The Judicial Inquiry Commission abused its authority when it filed charges against Chief Justice Roy Moore. The charges should never have been filed and must be dismissed. The JIC knows that it has no case and refuses to face the reality of the four-page administrative order, which any plain reading reveals did not direct the probate judges to disobey the U.S. Supreme Court. The JIC’s charges are full of colorful adjectives and lacking in substance.”
Johnston, adviser to the Alabama Citizens Action Program, which receives the bulk of its funding through the Cooperative Program, said the legal merits of the 2003 complaint against Moore may cause casual observers wrongly to conclude he has violated the law again.
“I’ve looked at the law and so forth, and I believe that he was doing what he, as a judge, would probably normally be doing” by issuing the administrative order, Johnston said. “He violated no court orders. He violated no ethics. And that’s not something you would remove a judge from office for.”
Even if Moore, 69, remains in office, he will be ineligible for reelection in 2018 because of a state law precluding the election of circuit, appellate and Supreme Court judges over age 70.