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THE NATION

Alabama Chief Justice Is Suspended

An ethics inquiry will review the judge's refusal to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the state Judicial Building.

August 23, 2003|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore was suspended Friday pending an ethics inquiry into his refusal to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the state Judicial Building.

The state's Judicial Inquiry Commission -- a body akin to a grand jury in criminal proceedings -- issued a formal complaint against Moore following a closed-door session earlier in the day.

A separate body known as the Court of the Judiciary, a nine-member panel composed of judges, lawyers and citizen appointees, is to consider the alleged ethics breaches and dole out any discipline. A unanimous vote of the panel could permanently remove Moore from office.

Under Alabama law, Moore is automatically suspended with pay as a result of the formal complaint. He will remain on suspension until the Court of the Judiciary hears the case.

It was not immediately known when proceedings would occur, although Moore has 30 days to respond to the complaint. It falls to the Alabama attorney general's office to try the case against Moore.

"We think his suspension is entirely appropriate. He defied a federal court order and he clearly violated the Alabama canons of judicial ethics," said Rhonda Brownstein, legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Moore "left the Judicial Inquiry Commission with no choice," she said.

The law center filed the initial complaint against Moore a week earlier on behalf of client Stephen R. Glassroth. The center also represented Glassroth in the lawsuit that resulted in the order to remove the monument, which Moore had installed in the court building two years ago.

The complaint issued by the judicial commission Friday found merit in Glassroth's allegations, laying out six charges that Moore had acted improperly by defying the federal order. Among the alleged violations were that Moore failed "to uphold the integrity and independence of the judiciary" and "to respect and comply with the law" by refusing to take the monument down.

Attempts to reach Moore through his spokesman, Tom Parker, were unsuccessful.

The suspension was a fresh setback for Moore's supporters, who have gathered by the hundreds in front of the court building for several days.

"We're disappointed. We want to stand and will continue to stand with Judge Moore forever. He's risked it all," said Bob Jewitt, a spokesman for the Christian Defense Coalition, based in Washington, D.C. "It's a sad day for Alabama."

He conceded that it appeared increasingly likely that the monument would be moved away soon. "I don't think there's any doubt that the monument will be removed," said Jewitt.

State Atty. Gen. Bill Pryor said Friday that it could be "a matter of days" before the monument is taken away because of the difficulties in handling it and the presence of the demonstrators, who have vowed to block its removal.

Pryor said that a new site for the monument has been chosen, but he declined to say where.

The monument has been at the center of a standoff between Moore and a federal judge who ruled it an unconstitutional use of public facilities for religious purposes. Eight associate justices interceded Thursday by voting unanimously to overrule Moore, ordering the building manager to remove the granite monument "as soon as practicable."

Pryor, who is representing the justices, said that task was complicated by the size and heft of the monument, which under the federal judge's order could be relocated to a part of the building out of public view. But the 5,300-pound monument is heavy enough to collapse the floor in some spots, Pryor said.

He said the presence of demonstrators, who have kept a round-the-clock watch on the monument through the building's locked glass doors, was a factor in scheduling the removal. More than 20 demonstrators were arrested Wednesday on trespassing charges.

"We have a lot of demonstrators around the building," Pryor said in a telephone interview. "We want to make sure that when the injunction is complied with, it's done in a peaceful manner."

Lawyers who sued to remove the monument agreed to hold off on their bid to have Moore held in contempt of court so justices would have time to get the job done. In holding off, the plaintiffs also spared the state from being fined up to $5,000 a day by U.S. District Judge Myron H. Thompson, who had set a Wednesday deadline for the monument's removal.

Attorneys for parties on all sides conferred with Thompson by telephone and agreed to talk again next Friday.

"The sentiment in the call is that the monument would be moved by then," said Ayesha Khan, legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, one of the groups involved in the court battle. Although the Christian activists vowed to do everything in their power to peacefully prevent the monument from being taken away, Moore was not expected to seek to block the move through legal action.

Moore has said, though, that he intends to carry on the broader court battle over the legality of public displays of the Ten Commandments, whose divine origins he argues are the underpinnings of secular law.

"We are taking this matter to the United States Supreme Court to clarify the 1st Amendment and our inalienable right to acknowledge God, and we will not be deterred," Moore said early Friday morning in an interview on CNN.

Later, about 100 of Moore's supporters gathered outside the federal court building, shouting prayers.

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