MONTGOMERY, Ala. — A tangled legal fight threatens to delay election of a new Alabama governor, raising the possibility that retiring Gov. George C. Wallace will be temporarily replaced by the bearer of another famous Alabama political name--a man who isn't even running for the office.
Jim Folsom Jr., son of two-time former Gov. James E. (Big Jim) Folsom, is an overwhelming favorite to be elected lieutenant governor and would be in line to take over the top state office in January if no gubernatorial election has been conducted by then.
Election officials and attorneys involved in the litigation said Thursday that they cannot predict what will happen in the six weeks before the general election.
But they said U.S. District Judge Foy Guin Jr.'s call Wednesday for a new Democratic primary runoff for governor between Lt. Gov. Bill Baxley and Atty. Gen. Charles Graddick may eventually bump the governor's race from the Nov. 4 ballot, forcing the state to hold a special general election for governor weeks or months after the vote for other state and federal offices.
Also in limbo is Republican nominee Guy Hunt, who, according to a Birmingham News poll last week, had drawn virtually even with the two Democrats among voters asked to choose among the three men.
The Wallace era ends on Jan. 19, when he completes his fourth four-year term. And, if the state's gubernatorial fight is stalled in the courts at that time, the Alabama Constitution provides that the new lieutenant governor serve as the state's chief executive until a governor is chosen.
Folsom, the Democratic nominee, is a lopsided favorite over Republican Don McGriff.
Election officials and probate judges said it can take up to a month to prepare properly for a statewide runoff election, such as the one ordered for Baxley and Graddick. Billy Compton, an elections division spokesman for the secretary of state, said that political parties by law have a Sept. 25 deadline for placing nominees on the Nov. 4 ballot and that absentee ballots must be mailed to applicants by Oct. 13.
The Democratic Party and Baxley appealed Guin's order and, on Thursday, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta temporarily halted the new runoff. If the full appeals court moves quickly to reverse Guin, the election could proceed as scheduled in November.
But, if the appeals court does not do that, or if further appeals draw the U.S. Supreme Court into the debate, Alabama's gubernatorial race could be left in legal limbo.
If a runoff finally is required, Democratic Party leaders have indicated that the party will disqualify Graddick anyway, on grounds of misconduct. That, in turn, would undoubtedly prompt more court challenges by Graddick and would possibly tie up the election well into next year.
Graddick has also mounted a write-in campaign, which he must abandon if a new runoff is held under Guin's order. He filed a waiver with the court Thursday, stating that he would do so.
Graddick began the write-in campaign after a five-member Democratic Party subcommittee declared Baxley the nominee on Aug. 15. Graddick had led Baxley by a narrow margin in their June 24 primary runoff, but a three-judge federal court in Montgomery ruled on Aug. 1 that Graddick had violated federal voting rights law by using his office to solicit Republican crossover votes.
The party subcommittee ruled that Graddick, a former Republican, abused his office by encouraging those who voted in the Republican primary on June 3 to violate a Democratic Party rule against GOP crossover voting in the Democratic runoff.