A special judicial ethics tribunal in Alabama refused on Friday to allow the state’s controversial and currently suspended chief justice, Roy Stewart Moore, to resume his duties on the bench any time over the final years of his elected term. Unless his former colleagues on the state supreme court salvage his career, it would be over, because he could not seek election again — as he did successfully once before after being removed from office.
In a 50-page decision, the state Court of the Judiciary ruled unanimously that Moore had violated a variety of restrictions on judges’ ethics by telling lower court judges in the state last January that they did not have to obey the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision allowing same-sex marriges across the nation.
Relying on the Supreme Court’s declaration in a 1958 case that the federal judiciary is the “supreme” body in interpreting the Constitution, and thus its rulings apply everywhere in the nation, the state tribunal said Moore was simply wrong in declaring that the marriage ruling only applied to the four states directly involved in the 2015 cases, collectively named Obergefell v. Hodges.
Moore, the tribunal said, knew he was wrong about that, and yet went ahead last January to formally advise the state’s 68 probate judges — the officials who issue marriage licenses in the state — that they were forbidden to carry out that task because same-sex marriage was not allowed in Alabama.
Moore’s chief defense against the charges was that his January 2016 memorandum to the probate judges was intended only as a “status update” on the judicial situation with same-sex marriage.
Moore had been removed from the office of chief justice in November 2003 after the Court of the Judiciary ruled that he had wrongly defied a federal court order to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments from the state supreme court building.
But, after exploring the possibility of running for president, Moore sought a new six-year term as chief justice in November 2012, and won. His term is scheduled to run until January 2019. But, under the state constitution, the age limit for the chief justiceship is 70, and Moore will reach that age next February.
The ethics tribunal had the authority to remove him entirely from the chief justiceship, as it had done before, and that would have been the end of his term. But it noted that its nine members were not unanimous, as they would have had to be, to oust him completely. Instead, by a unanimous vote, they simply suspended him for the remaining 27 months in his term.
Had he been removed, the governor of Alabama could name a replacement. But, because he was only suspended, his term will continue to run and a replacement cannot be named. The court will simply continue with eight members.
Moore had not been on the bench since last May. At that time, another state agency, the Judicial Inquiry Commission, filed six charges of ethical code violations. The effect of the filing of those charges was to suspend him pending a trial before the Court of the Judiciary. That trial ended on Wednesday, and the court issued its ruling on Friday.
Although the Court of the Judiciary said some of its members did not personally agree with the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling, and did not think it was “well reasoned,” it noted that it “simply does not have the authority to reexamine” the issue of same-sex marriage. It went on to reach the conclusion that the Court’s ruling applied everywhere in the country.
Among the charges against Moore, aside from his stance on the Obergefell decision, was a complaint that his order to the probate judges not to issue marriage licenses was in direct defiance of a statewide order by a federal judge in Mobile, ordering all of those state judges to issue such licenses. He also was accused of defying a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, applying the Obergefell decision to Alabama.
Aside from his judicial service, Moore has been actively involved in the legal advocacy work of the Foundation for Moral Law, based in Montgomery, Ala. It defends individuals in cases involving claims of religious freedom. Moore served for a time as its president; his wife, Kayla Moore, currently is president.
(NOTE: Thanks to Howard Bashman for flagging the Alabama ruling on Friday. The text of the ruling, too large for this site, is available at a link on Howard’s How Appealing blog.)