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Panel Removes Alabama's 'Ten Commandments Judge'

November 14, 2003|John Johnson | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — Alabama's chief Supreme Court justice, Roy Moore, whose refusal to take down a monument of the Ten Commandments in the courthouse made him a lightning rod in the debate over the place of religion in public life, was removed from his job Thursday.

Citing his defiance of a federal court and his failure to express regret for his actions, the nine-member Court of the Judiciary in Montgomery, Ala., ruled unanimously that Moore must step down from his job as the state's ranking judicial officer.

By defying a federal district court order to remove the 5,300-pound monument from public display, "the chief justice placed himself above the law," said Judge William Thompson, chief of the panel of judges, lawyers and private citizens. Apparently pained by the decision, Thompson said the panel had "no other viable alternative" but to remove Moore.

The decision followed a five-hour trial Wednesday in which Moore continued to insist that it was not just his right but his duty to acknowledge God in his courtroom.

Moore, 56, a West Point graduate who fought in Vietnam, was elected the state's chief justice in 2000, after campaigning on a platform of restoring the moral underpinnings of the law. He previously served as a judge in his native Etowah County, where he began building his reputation as "the Ten Commandments judge" by defying orders to take down the 18-by-24-inch rosewood plaque of the commandments he hung in his courtroom.

After he was elected to the state's high court, he installed the large granite monument in the rotunda of the Alabama Judicial Building that led to the confrontation with the federal court and his removal.

Despite the blow of losing his position, Moore told a crowd of several hundred supporters and journalists that he had no regrets, insisting that it wasn't he, but the federal court, that was failing to follow the rule of law.

"When a federal judge tells the state of Alabama that we cannot acknowledge God, we have a serious problem," Moore said. Next, he said, the country could lose the motto "In God We Trust" from its currency.

The nonelective removal of a sitting chief justice is highly unusual. A decade ago, the chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals, Sol Wachtler, was removed and subsequently convicted for stalking a woman.

Moore could appeal his firing to the Alabama Supreme Court. However, he has found no support for his arguments in the courts of Alabama or elsewhere to date -- the U.S. Supreme Court last week turned down his appeal of the order removing the monument.

Moore had been suspended with pay from his $170,000-a-year job since August; the judicial panel's ruling Thursday takes effect immediately.

Polls indicate that as many as three-quarters of Alabamians have sided with Moore, who has vaulted to fame on the Ten Commandments issue. His confrontation with the federal judiciary has made him so popular, especially with religious fundamentalists, that speculation has begun on whether he might seek political office -- possibly as a challenger to Republican Gov. Bob Riley or as a candidate for the U.S. Senate.

Terry Butts, one of Moore's attorneys, met with Moore after Thursday's ruling but said no decision had been made about whether to appeal. Butts also said he understood that many people want to know whether Moore would run for office, but added, "He's more concerned with how he's going to feed his family."

Despite the setback, Moore remains steadfast in his convictions, Butts said. "He has said all the way through, 'It's God's will, whatever happens.' "

Moore, his jaw set, told supporters he would confer with his attorneys over the next few days before making a decision that "could alter the state of the country."

Some of those supporting Moore see the issue in similar terms. A news release from the Rev. Flip Benham, who identified himself as national director of Operation Rescue/Operation Save America, said Moore was "initiating the second American Revolution."

But for legal scholars, the matter was simpler: Moore, in refusing to abide by an order from a higher judicial authority, was violating his oath of office and threatening the foundations of the law. The judicial panel had several options: It could have exonerated, suspended or removed him. The Court of the Judiciary took the most serious action available.

Noting that he had no authority to decide whether the federal court was right or wrong, Judge Thompson said the decision to remove the chief justice was based entirely on "clear and convincing evidence that Roy S. Moore did willfully and publicly defy a federal court order directed to him."

The harshness and unanimity of the decision show "how strong the nine-member panel's reaction was to Moore's testimony," said Steven Lubet, a professor of the Northwestern University School of Law and one of the nation's leading authorities on judicial ethics.

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