Judges’ pay doesn’t match their training – [Editorial]
January 29, 2007
What’s wrong with this picture?
Alabama has the highest-paid judiciary in the country. Yet state court judges don't have the money to attend training programs. As a consequence, the Alabama Bar is raising money to send the judges to national training programs.
The organization has set a goal of $250,000 in private contributions from its members to allow 90 to 100 state judges who have never attended the National Judicial College training programs an opportunity to go.
The 10-day general jurisdiction-training program lets Alabama judges see how their counterparts in other states address issues. But due to a shortage in state money, Alabama state court judges have been unable to receive substantive judicial training offered but the National Judicial College since 1988.
Further, according to the state bar, the Alabama Judicial College has been shut down since 2004 because of insufficient money.
Yet, thanks in part to a bill that passed the Legislature during Don Siegelman's term as governor, Alabama judges are among the highest paid in the nation, drawing annual salaries that can exceed $180,000. About 90 percent of the state court system’s annual budget goes to salaries.
Whether judges should make that kind of money in a poor state is open to debate. But having highly paid but inadequately trained judges is lunacy. The Alabama bar’s concern is understandable, but state government really should be underwriting the judicial training expenses.
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Former chief justice believes judges should be appointed
By Adam Jones, Tuscaloosa News
February 1, 2007
TUSCALOOSA | Former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Drayton Nabers, who fought to keep his seat in what is considered one of the most expensive judicial campaigns in the country, said Tuesday that he does not favor electing judges.
“There is no perfect system for the selection of judges," Nabers told the Tuscaloosa Rotary Club at a lunch meeting. “The rule of law is critical, and elections don’t help the public respect of the judges who keep the rule of law."
Many are calling for the state to change the way judges are selected in Alabama, after campaign costs skyrocketed in the November election. Nabers lost to Democratic challenger Sue Bell Cobb, a race that cost nearly $9 million.
Cobb has called for non-partisan elections, and the president of the Alabama Bar Association told Rotarians earlier this month that judges should be selected by a commission based on merit with the governor having final say.
Nabers’ comment came at the end of his speech to the club, offered only in response to a question by a reporter. His speech to the club focused not on politics but on character, the subject of a book Nabers wrote.
“There is no more important contributor to success than character," he said.
The lunch speech was his first public statement since leaving office earlier this month. He said retirement takes getting used to.
Nabers, 66, wouldn’t rule out the possibility of working again.
“Hopefully, opportunities to serve will come my way again," he said after the meeting.
As for speaking to a civic group -- something he did countless times on the campaign trail -- Nabers said he enjoys it.
“I like to talk when a group wants me to," he said. He stayed to sign copies of his book. Proceeds from the sale of the book benefit the Rotary Club.
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State needs effective attorneys if death penalty is to exist – [Editorial]
January 30, 2007
Almost by definition, says an Ohio State law professor, an attorney whose client gets the death sentence was ineffective. The dark humor of his observation mirrors the frustrating task of defining an effective defense.
But in Alabama, at least, the quality of attorneys who draw assignments to capital cases is no laughing matter. In fact, it’s one of the main arguments for the Legislature to enact a temporary ban on executions so that the issues of effective representation and a number of other critical issues can be sorted out.
A story in Sunday’s edition of The Tuscaloosa News showed the kind of problems in representation that low-income defendants face.
ToForest Johnson, convicted of capital murder in the 1998 execution-style slaying of a sheriff’s deputy, William Hardy, who was working off-duty as a security guard in Birmingham, appealed on the grounds of ineffective representation.
His trial counsel hadn’t investigated his background and had hired no experts to evaluate him, he argued. But the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals rejected his appeal because Johnson, who was unable to afford a lawyer to do a thorough investigation, could not detail what his trial lawyers had missed.
Catch-22. It’s all too common in the legal system of Alabama, which not only lacks any guarantee that death penalty defendants will have good trial lawyers but also offers no assurance that convicted inmates will have legal representation of any kind in the days leading up to their execution.
Another questionable aspect of the way this state administers the death penalty is the issue of judicial override.
Alabama is one of only a handful of states where a judge has the power to override a jury’s recommendation of life in prison without the possibility of parole and impose the death penalty instead. According to one study, judicial override is responsible for between 20 percent and 25 percent of the capital sentences in Alabama.
An assessment team from the American Bar Association cited judicial override as the leading reason why this state, which ranks 23rd in population, has the sixth-largest Death Row in the United States. Though Alabama has only half the population of Georgia, which does not permit judicial override, it sentences four times as many people to death.
Does that fact serve as a deterrent to crime? There is no way to quantify an answer, but the state’s spiraling murder rate speaks for itself.
There are other troublesome aspects of the death penalty in Alabama that need to be explored, like guaranteed DNA testing for Death Row inmates and racial and geographic disparities in sentencing.
At least 37 local governments in Alabama have called for a moratorium to allow careful consideration of the death penalty. Every year, a legislator proposes such a suspension -- only to see it shot down by colleagues who don’t want to appear “soft on crime."
The real issue, however, is one of fairness. Until Alabama can ensure that defendants have been treated fairly at every stage of a capital case, no matter how gruesome the crime, capital punishment will weigh heavily on the conscience of the state.
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Lawmakers want judicial elections publicly funded
By Greg Bluestein, ASSOCIATED PRESS
January 23, 2007
ATLANTA - After two of the most expensive judicial contests in Georgia history, Republican legislators introduced a proposal Monday to set up a taxpayer-funded pot to finance judicial election campaigns.
The publicly financed campaigns would be optional for judicial candidates and funded through voluntary checkoffs on state income tax returns. The bill would also set up a "rescue fund" for publicly financed candidates whose opponents raked in excessive donations from private donors or independent expenditures.
"We're basically relying on moral persuasion as opposed to government mandate," said state Rep. Ed Lindsey, an Atlanta Republican and the vice chair of the House's judiciary committee.
The proposal, modeled after a similar law in North Carolina, would require candidates to raise $50,000 but no more than $100,000 through small donations to qualify. It also mandates that half of the contributions must come from donors who are not attorneys.
A separate measure, also introduced by Lindsey, would limit judicial contributions from political parties and independent committees. And it sets up a process that requires a judge to step down from a case if an attorney trying the case has donated more than $500 to the judge's election campaign.
Government watchdog group Common Cause, which had a hand in authoring the bill, said the proposal would help reverse the trend of increasingly expensive judicial contests.
"What we've seen in the national scene is coming to Georgia and we're just going to have to deal with more of it," said Bill Bozarth of Common Cause. "The choice is to sit around or take action so we don't see judicial races start to become spending frenzies."
House Speaker Glenn Richardson seemed less optimistic. In a recent interview, the Republican said he supports the current system, which he said "let's the people decide."
The last two elections have featured the costliest judicial campaigns in state history.
In 2004, Grant Brantley raised almost $300,000 to compete for a Supreme Court judgeship while incumbent Leah Ward Sears, the eventual victor, raked in more than $500,000.
Last year's election set a new high mark. Conservative challenger Michael Wiggins raised more than $300,000 and an independent group raised an additional $1.67 million from insurance companies and corporate interests to back his candidacy. Hunstein, who emerged with 63 percent of the vote, spent more than $1.3 million to keep her seat.
Lindsey said he doesn't expect any action on his legislation until next year, and has asked for a study committee of lawmakers, judges, lawyers and others to assist.
If it makes it further, expect Richardson to leave his imprint. He argues that judicial candidates should face the same political gauntlet as other
"I think it's healthy and it's the American way," Richardson said. "But I'll listen to his bill."
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Attorney general wrong to ask favors – [Editorial]
January 30, 2007
Do you think it is wrong for a prosecutor whose office is investigating someone to ask for a favor from that person while the investigation is ongoing? If so, then the state attorney general's spokesman thinks that you and any Alabamians who agree with you are just being cynical.
However, we suspect that most Alabamians readily recognize the impropriety of seeking favors under such circumstances, and we don't believe they are cynical at all.
The Birmingham News has reported that Alabama Attorney General Troy King asked Roy Johnson, who was then chancellor of the state two-year college system, to help fund a victim's rights organization that has been supportive of King. The request came while King's office was investigating Johnson's office and the two-year college system.
King's spokesman, Chris Bence, defended King's action, saying it was not improper because King did not ask for anything for himself.
"Would he do it again knowing how it might be perceived by people who are cynical? ... No, I don't think he would," Bence told the Birmingham News.
Alabamians should hope he would not do it again. But King already has had to remove himself from the sweeping investigation of the state's two-year college system after it earlier was disclosed that he had asked Johnson to hire the mother of a friend who is an assistant attorney general.
Please note that King did not remove himself from participating in the investigation until after it was disclosed in the news media that he had sought favors from Johnson.
King has more than a perception problem. It is wrong for him to ask favors of any kind from someone his office is investigating. He should know that, and he should publicly admit that it was wrong and stop trying to spin it as something else.
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Alabama Bar raises money to send judges for training
The Associated Press
January 23, 2007
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — The Alabama State Bar is raising money to send judges to national training programs because state funds have been unavailable.
The State Bar hopes to get its members to contribute $250,000 so that 90 to 100 Alabama judges who have never attended National Judicial College training programs will have an opportunity to go.
"By attending the judicial college's 10-day general jurisdiction training program our judges can learn from judges in other states how they address common issues," said Birmingham attorney Fournier "Boots" Gale III, president of the State Bar.
Due to a lack of state funds, no new Alabama state court judges have been able to receive substantive judicial training offered by the National Judicial College since 1988, and the Alabama Judicial College has been shut down since 2004, according to the State Bar.
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Cobb's sound ideas deserve attention – [Editorial]
The Montgomery Advertiser
January 18, 2007
Sue Bell Cobb gained a place in the history books when she was sworn in this week as the first female chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. As noteworthy as that was, however, a pair of proposals she plans to push would have considerably more far-reaching impact.
One is reform of a flawed system of addressing judicial misconduct, a system changed decidedly for the worse several years ago. As Cobb noted in response to an Advertiser question during the campaign, "Strong oversight of judicial conduct is essential because the operation of the courts depends on the trust of the people."
Yet the freedom of Alabamians to file complaints against judges has been compromised by unwise rules changes adopted by the court Cobb now leads, albeit with a significantly different membership at that time. Confidential complaints were barred, meaning that the judge against whom a complaint is lodged knows who lodged it. There is a definite chilling effect there, for citizens as well as for lawyers who must practice before that judge.
Another unsound provision is the "open-file" requirement, under which a judge gets a copy of all evidence uncovered while an investigation is being conducted. That rule is unique to judges in Alabama, Cobb said, noting that ordinary citizens do not have the right to such information prior to charges being filed.
Since the new rules went into effect, complaints have dropped by two-thirds. It would be pleasant to suppose that this is due to a renewed commitment to rectitude among judges, but experience suggests otherwise. These rules plainly need changing, and Cobb is right to seek such change.
Cobb is also right in her call for an end to the partisan election of judges. As the Advertiser has long argued, there is no Republican or Democratic law, no Republican or Democratic justice. Judges do not have - or certainly should not have -- constituencies in the same way that officeholders in the executive and legislative branches of government do.
These two reforms would be lasting improvements to the judiciary that would endure long past Cobb's tenure as chief justice.
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Law Firms Are Urged Not to Force Retirements
By JULIE CRESWELL, The New York Times
January 19, 2007
A special committee of the New York State Bar Association is calling on law firms to end the practice of mandatory retirement for partners.
In a strongly worded report that is to be released today, the committee concluded that “mandatory retirement — requiring a partner to leave the firm upon reaching an arbitrary age — is not an acceptable practice.”
Retirement practices at law firms is becoming a hot topic as many of the nation’s lawyers enter their 60s and face policies aimed at pushing them out the door. About 57 percent of law firms with more than 100 lawyers reported having a mandatory retirement age, ranging from 65 to 72, according to a 2005 survey conducted by Altman Weil, a law firm management consulting company.
But firms that push lawyers out at an arbitrary age without taking into consideration the individual’s productivity and contribution to the firm could be missing out, said Mark H. Alcott, 67, a lawyer with Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, who is president of the bar association and who formed the special committee.
“One of the things that concerns me is that mandatory retirement ages are getting younger just as people are getting older and living more productive lives,” said Mr. Alcott, who said Paul, Weiss had a mandatory retirement age of 70.
Law firms that have adopted more-corporate structures have long argued that older partners needed to be moved out to give more opportunities and a bigger chunk of profits to younger lawyers.
But members of the special committee said that some firms adopted the policies simply to avoid uncomfortable discussions with a senior partner whose skills may be diminishing.
“We’re not suggesting that partnerships should be a lifetime guarantee, but we think it is a false premise that utilizing senior lawyers in a way that’s consistent with their ability to contribute denies opportunities to younger lawyers,” said Mark C. Zauderer, 60, a lawyer with Flemming Zulack Williamson Zauderer, who was chairman of the committee.
Mr. Zauderer, who said that his firm did not have a mandatory retirement policy, noted that law firms were keeping a close eye on legal challenges to their practices.
In federal court in Chicago, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has filed a lawsuit against the law firm Sidley Austin, accusing it of age discrimination in the demotion or forced retirement of 32 older partners in 1999. Sidley has denied the accusations.
The committee did not take a position on the Sidley Austin case, Mr. Zauderer said, but he said such cases may make it hard for large law firms to justify retirement policies on the ground that partners are owners and therefore exempt from protection by age discrimination laws.
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New attorneys outpace SC population growth
The Orangeburg Times & Democrat ( South Carolina)
January 23, 2007
CHARLESTON, S.C. - If it seems like there is an attorney's office on every corner there may be a reason _ during the past quarter century the number of new attorneys in South Carolina has grown 10 times faster than the general population.
Experts point to a number of reasons _ everything from the rise of the banking industry in neighboring Charlotte, N.C., to new law schools and the growing acceptance of minorities and women lawyers.
"There are lots and lots of people in law school who are the first in their family to go to law school," said Robert Wilcox, associate dean of academic affairs at the University of South Carolina School of Law in Columbia.
The number of lawyers licensed in South Carolina is 12,170, an increase of about 300 percent since 1981. During the same time, the state's population grew about 30 percent.
About 2,500 attorneys licensed to practice in South Carolina live out of state.
More women are entering the profession and now make up almost 30 percent of the practicing attorneys.
"When I was in law school, women were only about 15 percent" of the enrollment, said Alice Paylor, who graduated from the USC School of Law in 1977 and is now president of the South Carolina Women Lawyers Association. "It's definitely changing."
This spring, the first class of 170 students will graduate from the new Charleston School of Law while another 225 are expected to graduate from the University of South Carolina School of Law.
South Carolina Bar President Brad Waring of Charleston said the increase in the profession is likely part of the state's overall growth and the attraction of South Carolina as a place where people want to work and live.
But he said it may level off a bit in the future because of tort reform legislation that has put caps on lawsuits in many states, including South Carolina.
Third-year Charleston School of Law student Mike McCauley, 28, said some rural South Carolina counties have fewer than 10 attorneys.
"I think there's plenty of work that needs to be done," McCauley said.
And while the number of attorneys is growing, South Carolina still has only one in-state lawyer for about every 508 people, which is fewer than other states.
Wilcox said there may be another reason why students are taking up the law _ television shows about attorneys were trendy during the 1980s and amounted to free advertising for the profession.
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Republicans revive measure to change law school guidelines
FOX News, North Carolina
January 25, 2007
ATLANTA Powerful Republicans in the state House revived an effort today to allow attorneys who graduated from unaccredited law schools to take the state's Bar exam without first getting a waiver.
The effort was sponsored by state Representative Bobby Franklin -- a Marietta Republican -- and backed by a raft of influential Republican legislators.
It allows students who have passed the bar in other states to take Georgia's exam -- even if they don't meet Georgia's academic guidelines.
The measure would open the door for students who graduate from correspondence schools and online schools unaccredited by the American Bar Association to sit for the Georgia exam without getting prior approval from the state's Office of Bar Admissions.
Franklin -- who is NOT a lawyer -- introduced a similar proposal two years ago. He said he was prodded to sponsor the measure to help Sara Larios -- a Republican staffer who graduated from a California-based correspondence school.
The bill easily passed the House but was bottled up in the state Senate, in part because of stiff opposition from the state-run Office of Bar Admissions. Officials there worried that the measure would allow more than two-thousand otherwise ineligible students to take the exam.
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Alabama needs to start appointing appellate judges – [Editorial]
Tuscaloosa News, January 18, 2007
Anyone with even a passing knowledge of how Alabama chooses judges for its appellate courts -- that is, the Alabama Supreme Court and state courts of criminal and civil appeals -- knows the system is seriously flawed.
Alabama is one of only seven states to choose such judges in partisan elections. Getting on those courts requires campaign money. In Alabama the amount of money that has flowed into those campaigns in the last decade or so is almost obscene.
Fournier “Boots" Gale, president of the Alabama State Bar Association, said earlier this week that in the court races in the decade ending in 2004, Alabama led the nation in the amount of money spent.
In those 10 years, candidates for the nine places on the Alabama Supreme Court alone spent $41 million. And last year, Democrat Sue Bell Cobb and Republican incumbent Drayton Nabors raised more than $11.5 million for their race, in which Bell was the upset winner.
But unlike candidates for practically every other office, from the governor down to the local school board, judicial candidates are prohibited by the bar’s own code of ethics from running on specific, partisan issues.
Justice is supposed to be blind, and judges are supposed to rule on specific cases with open minds. But with candidates forced to run either as party members or as independents and to raise money to finance those campaigns, questions naturally arise about where they stand on issues.
If one candidate gets bushels of money from trial lawyers while his or her opponent gets bundles of checks from business interests, there are some inferences, fairly or unfairly, to be drawn. Gale says such a system breeds cynicism among the voters and mistrust in the fairness of the state appeals courts.
He said the state bar thinks it has a better way to select judges. The 15,000-member organization of lawyers believes a “merit selection plan" would take the money, if not all the politics, out of the state judicial selection process.
Under the state bar plan, which has been one of the organization’s priorities for the last three years, there would be no more conventional elections for appellate judges.
The plan involves a nine-member commission, composed of four members selected by the state bar and five selected by the governor, lieutenant governor and other constitutional officers. When seats are open or when the judges’ six-year terms are up, the commission would screen candidates and give the governor three names to pick from.
Judges selected would fill their seats until the end of each of their terms. Then voters in the general election would decide simply whether to retain individual judges.
If the voters opted for change, the process of screening, recommending and selection by the governor would begin again.
Gale pointed out that special-interest groups still could mount expensive campaigns to have a judge removed but would not be able to campaign for a specific candidate to replace him or her.
It is a system that is working well in other states. Whether the time is right for such a system to be implemented in Alabama, where passage of an amendment to the constitution would be necessary, remains to be seen.
But the more the state bar pushes for legislation to set the wheels in motion in the Alabama Legislature -- which would have to pass legislation authorizing a vote on a constitutional amendment -- the more the lawmakers and the general public will realize that there is a better way to select judges than we do now.
What may now seem a quixotic quest may one day be accepted as good government. The sooner that day arrives, the better.
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Alabama Bar president favors appointment of state judges
By Tommy Stevenson, Tuscaloosa News
January 17, 2007
TUSCALOOSA | Alabama needs to take the politics -- and the money --- out of electing judges to its appeals courts, and the Alabama Bar Association is working on a plan to do that, ABA President Fournier “Boots" Gale said Tuesday.
The “merit selection" plan being advanced by the 15,000-member bar would have an independent commission draw up a list of three names for any vacancy on the Alabama Supreme Court, Court of Criminal Appeals and Court of Civil Appeals, Gale told the Rotary Club of Tuscaloosa.
The governor would select a judge from the list to fill the vacancy, he said.
After a 6-year term, or the remainder of a term in which a vacancy was filled, the judge’s name would appear alone on the general election ballot. Voters then would decide whether the judge would continue in office.
“If the judge is voted out, then the whole process of selecting three people and the governor picking one would start over again," Gale said. “We think that would be a disincentive for any special interest groups to pour a lot of money into a campaign, because all they would be doing would be getting rid of a judge -- not electing someone who they favor."
Gale, a Birmingham lawyer, said that during the decade ending in 2004, “ Alabama was first in the nation in money spent on Supreme Court races. In those ten years, candidates for the Alabama Supreme Court alone spent $41 million."
He said that in the 2006 general election, in which Democrat Sue Bell Cobb defeated Republican incumbent Drayton Nabors for Alabama Chief Justice and four other places on the Supreme Court were on the line, candidates raised $11.5 million, “which again ranked Alabama number one for the most expensive judicial races in the United States," Gale said.
Gale said more than half of that was spent in the race for chief justice alone, making it the most expensive judicial race in the nation last year.
He quoted the National Law Journal, which said that Alabama’s judicial campaigns were expensive because judicial candidates were affiliated with political parties and had no limits on fund-raising.
“Historically, Alabama has been 'ground zero’ for campaign fund raising and negative TV campaign ads," the law journal article said.
Gale said that Alabama is one of only seven states that elect state appeals court judges on a partisan basis, but admitted that the ABA would have to clear some formidable hurdles to change the system.
The Legislature would have to pass a constitutional amendment, which would then have to be approved by voters statewide.
The bar also would have to strike a compromise with Cobb, who favors nonpartisan races, in which candidates would run without party labels, but would still have to raise large campaign chests to be competitive, Gale said.
Unlike candidates for offices such as governor and seats in the Legislature, judicial candidates are not supposed to espouse political positions and are expected to judge cases that come before them on their merits and not based on their own political beliefs.
“ Alabama’s current system is flawed because of the perception it gives to the public," Gale said. “Even though we are fortunate to have excellent appellate judges and objective ones, the public simply does not believe it.
“Hardly anyone believes a judge who is receiving large sums of money from a special interest group will not try to please that group."
The merit system proposed by the ABA would set up a 9-member commission to select names to be submitted to the governor. The commission would comprise four attorneys selected by the bar and five members appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and other constitutional officers, Gale said.
“Our merit selection program is not perfect. It won’t get politics completely out of it," he said. “But it will get the fundraising part out of it, it will get the money part out of it. We think it will get the public perception changed."
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State's first female chief justice aims high - PROFILE Sue Bell Cobb
Eric Velasco, The Birmingham News
January 12, 2007
Sue Bell Cobb, the first woman to be Alabama's chief justice, has an ambitious agenda.
She wants to tighten the rules for disciplining judges, change the way judges are picked and restore funding to the court system. As the chief justice with the most experience in decades, Cobb said she believes she has the understanding of the courts system and the professional respect to win the changes.
The 25-year veteran of the trial and appellate bench will be sworn in Tuesday. The chief justice is administrator of the entire court system, including city, trial and appellate courts. The chief justice also sits in on all cases before the Supreme Court, while the other eight justices are divided into four-member panels.
But as the only Democrat on the court - who also will deal with a Republican administration - Cobb will need to show political acumen and a talent for consensus building, said David Lanoue, chairman of the political science department of the University of Alabama.
Cobb, who has taken an informal oath of office already, said she's excited about Tuesday's ceremony, when 11 appellate judges will be sworn in. "Even though I have been working hard already, it certainly will be an exciting day," said Cobb, 50.
One early test will be Cobb's plan to alter changes made to the judicial disciplinary system under then-chief justice Roy Moore, including restoring confidentiality for those who file complaints. The rules could be altered by reviving a defunct advisory committee.
"The chief justice recommends people, and the court makes appointments," Cobb said. "I'll offer a slate of names. They can either accept them or change who I recommend" to the committee.
Women have made significant strides on the bench in Alabama. All of the five-member Court of Civil Appeals is male. But three of the five judges on the Court of Criminal Appeals are female, as it was when Cobb was on that court before her election as chief justice. Three of the nine Supreme Court justices will be women after Tuesday.
"It sends a nice message to the rest of the country that Alabama is not behind the curve the way the rest of the country thinks we are," Lanoue said.
"You could argue that Sue Bell Cobb is the most powerful woman in Alabama's political history," he said.
Cobb downplays the power concept. "Power makes some people feel they can do anything, but I'm not one of those people. I do what I think is the right thing to do," said Cobb.
In the 66 years she's researched so far, no chief justice matched her level of experience as both a trial and appellate judge. She also has presided over cases in two-thirds of Alabama's 67 counties.
That experience allows her to identify problem areas in the court system and know how to solve them, she said.
One is her plan to put a drug court in all 67 counties in Alabama, set up along the lines of the courts in Jefferson and Shelby counties that stress treatment alternatives to prison. Retired Jefferson County District Judge O.L. "Pete" Johnson, who founded the Jefferson County Drug Court, will chair a task force to facilitate the effort.
"I will use all my power and influence to achieve that," she said. Cobb said she also is working with the State Bar of Alabama on a bill to change judicial elections to nonpartisan races, at least for appellate seats.
Alabama is the most expensive state for a candidate to run for Supreme Court. Candidates in five races last year spent a combined $10.6 million. To reduce the influence of money on the judiciary, the bar had planned to push for a system in which the governor appoints appellate judges, and voters decide after a six-year term whether to retain them.
"Although that arguably is the best method, it's not the most politically feasible," she said. "I want to find something in between, and go forth with legislation that is doable."
Cobb also wants to restore funding for the courts to the level it was in 2003, when court budgets were cut 25 percent after voters rejected Gov. Bob Riley's tax-increase referendum. She also wants to require judicial education for all judges and better coordinate with city and juvenile courts.
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Female chief justice shows how gender gap is closing – [Editorial]
The Clanton Advertiser
January 17, 2007
Alabama is gaining some notoriety among our country as Sue Bell Cobb took the oath of office Tuesday as Alabama's first female chief justice and only the sixth woman to serve on the state's highest court in its 188-year history.
The Alabama milestone is part of a trend across the South, where women have been gaining political power in recent decades with elections to offices of governor and U.S. senator.
Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta, told the Associated Press that Cobb is one of a number of women slowly gaining political power across the South. In some ways, he said, Alabama is catching up. He noted that Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears was just elected to a second term and that Texas elected Ann Richards as governor in 1990.
Cobb certainly is not the first woman to hold one of the top positions in Alabama.
The state elected Lurleen Wallace as governor in 1966. She is the only woman to hold that office. Many regard her administration as a stand-in for her husband, Gov. George C. Wallace. George Wallace had won in 1962 and by law was barred from re-election, but that shouldn't take away from what Lurleen means to the state.
Also, Alabama's first female appellate court judge was Annie Lola Price, appointed in 1951 to what was then the Court of Appeals. She served in an era when women were not allowed to serve on juries. Janie Shores was elected Alabama's first female Supreme Court justice in 1974. Including Cobb, there are now three women on the Alabama Supreme Court and six female appellate court judges.
This certainly shows that the state has come a long way with giving males and females an equal chance in elections.
What it might take for more women to get elected to office would be to follow Cobb's example of how to run an election. She thought outside the box with her campaign and it worked.
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Attorney general accepts favors - [Editorial]
January 16, 2007
When it comes to ethical behavior by an elected official, Alabama Attorney General Troy King appears to be tone deaf.
The Birmingham News reported Sunday that King, whose office is supposed to represent the interests of consumers in utility rate matters before the Public Service Commission, used Alabama Power Co.'s luxury box at Turner Field in Atlanta free of charge.
This is the second disclosure of a questionable ethical action by King since his re-election in November. It also was disclosed that King, whose office was investigating the state's two-year college system, asked the chancellor of the two-year system to hire the mother of a friend and co-worker. King later removed himself from the investigation, but only after his actions were reported by the news media and widely criticized by editorial pages, including this one.
Alabama Power admitted providing King with 14 tickets for a Braves game and use of the company's skybox. Skyboxes normally rent for about $2,400 per day. The utility did not report the donation to the state Ethics Commission until after it was asked about it by a reporter.
According to the News, King said he was provided the tickets by Alabama Power because his church choir had been asked to sing the national anthem. But the choir canceled the trip. King said his family and the family of two choir members decided to go to the game anyway because they already had planned to take their children to a children's theater in Atlanta.
In addition to use of the suite and the tickets, a lawyer and a lobbyist for Alabama Power provided $1,262 in food for King's party, the News reported. King later reimbursed the lawyer and the lobbyist $486 for the cost of the food for his family, but nothing for the other guests from his church.
King told the Birmingham News that he saw no conflict of interest in the use of the suite, saying it was no different than a campaign contribution.
But if King doesn't see a problem with taking special favors from a regulated utility, then he just doesn't get it when it comes to conflicts of interest. King has a legal and moral responsibility to represent the interests of Alabama ratepayers when it comes to such regulated utilities as Alabama Power. He should not be taking anything of value from a utility, whether it is allowed by law or not.
To accept such favors from a regulated utility clearly undermines his credibility and the credibility of his office.
Instead of excuses, King needs to admit his error and apologize to the people of Alabama. Then he should repay Alabama Power for the full cost of the tickets and food for everyone in that suite. Then, most of all, he needs to stop asking for or accepting favors from special interests.
Lawyers win overhead pay [Editorial]
The Birmingham News
January 02, 2007
THE ISSUE: The Alabama Supreme Court ended an unnecessary fight, ruling that defense lawyers who represent poor people can get paid for their overhead costs.
A silly effort to keep indigent defense lawyers from collecting extra pay for their overhead costs has been brought to a good and welcome end.
The Alabama Supreme Court concluded that state law provides for these lawyers to collect overhead pay, notwithstanding an unfortunate and contrary interpretation from Attorney General Troy King on the subject.
King touched off this controversy in early 2005 with an opinion saying that lawyers representing poor clients weren't entitled under state law to get reimbursed for such expenses as office supplies, rent and staff.
The result was wholly predictable. Lawyers abandoned appointed cases. Some lawyers also fought back, suing to have the payments for overhead expenses reinstated.
Near the end of December, the court ruled (unanimously, we might add) that King was wrong.
At issue, the court said was a 1999 law in which the Legislature raised the hourly rates for court-appointed lawyers - from $30 to $40 for out-of-court work and from $50 to $60 for in-court work. King argued the new law also eliminated payment for overhead expenses.
The court disagreed.
Justices said the current law specifically allows a lawyer to be reimbursed for "expenses reasonably incurred in the defense of his or her own client." This wording represents only a slight change from the old law, which provided for reimbursements for "expenses reasonably incurred in such defense." The court found "no meaningful differences in the phrases."
But King's different interpretation produced very real differences for poor people and the lawyers who represent them.
Average overhead pay for lawyers representing poor criminal defendants was $29 an hour - a significant amount compared to the paltry legal fees authorized by the state.
King's opinion was, in effect, a huge pay cut for lawyers - and for a number of them, it was a deal buster. Lawyers in solo practice or small firms don't have deep pockets to eat the costs of criminal defense work, especially complicated, expensive big cases, like those involving a possible death penalty. It was no wonder they started dropping court-appointed work - not out of greed, but out of recognition they could not do a reasonably good job. How much pre-trial legwork and legal research can a lawyer perform for $40 an hour?
Some thought that was just as well. The old Christian Coalition of Alabama argued the state couldn't afford the overhead pay, which totaled some $14 million a year.
It's true the state can't afford to empty the treasury on poor criminal defendants. But the state does have an obligation to provide lawyers for those who can't afford one. Providing a good lawyer and a good defense is one way to reduce the number of wrongful convictions and costly retrials.
Reinstating overhead pay doesn't come close to solving every problem of indigent defense in Alabama. But it solves one problem. For that, we should thank the Supreme Court.
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Judges bring experience to the bench
By Greg Purvis, The Fort Payne Times-Journal
January 2, 2007
When DeKalb County Circuit Judge Randall Cole took office in 1974 he was – at 31 years old – one of the youngest judges in Alabama. Now, 32 years later, Cole has become the longest serving judge in the state.
The year he took office, he became the first judge to preside over a newly created circuit that included DeKalb and Cherokee counties. In the past three decades, Cole has seen a lot of changes in Alabama law and judicial practice.
“When Chief Justice [Sue Bell] Cobb takes office in January, I will have served with eight chief justices,” Cole said. “When I started, once a jury determined a person’s guilt, the jury set the sentence. In 1977, the law changed and judges did all the sentencing.”
Legal reforms have been a constant evolution over the years, according to Cole.
“There was a brief period when the death penalty was suspended by the U.S. Supreme Court,” he said. “We’ve also seen the introduction of the Habitual Offender Law, which provides stiffer penalties for repeat offenders. And recently, we’ve seen a law introduced that creates voluntary sentencing guidelines for Alabama judges.”
Cole says that, in the federal system, reduced sentencing discretion by judges has been widely criticized. “I think it is important that judges have discretion in sentencing, because every case is different.”
Cole says another thing that has changed significantly during his long tenure on the bench has been the jury selection methods used in Alabama.
“When I started, we had what was called a ‘blue ribbon jury’ process,” Cole said. “Every county had a jury commission made up of three people appointed by the governor. The commission selected names to go into a box of potential jurors, and these people were generally people the commission knew personally, people considered to have a good reputation in the community.”
Cole says the federal court ruled that this system was not providing jurors who represented a cross-section of the community, and a new process of juror selection was instituted based on the state’s drivers license registry.
“This is the system we use now, and it provides a good cross-section of the community,” Cole said. Cole mentioned that two of the biggest local changes in recent years have been the institution of the drug court and the new teleconferencing system, which allows judges to communicate with inmates at the new jail without requiring deputies to physically transport them to the courthouse.
In addition to a circuit court judge’s duties, Cole also spends a considerable amount of time as chairman of the Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission. The commission has jurisdiction over the enforcement of judicial ethics throughout the state. Cole’s long tenure on the bench serves him well in this capacity, allowing him to draw on his considerable experience.
The commission has the authority to convene the Court of the Judiciary, a special court that has the power to investigate and sanction judges who violate ethical standards. As a watchdog agency, the commission handles hundreds of complaints every year concerning alleged ethical violations.
“I’ve spent a considerable amount of time on administrative responsibilities as chairman,” Cole said. Cole said his time on the bench has been a wonderful experience.
“My biggest challenge during these 32 years is really the challenge of any judge,” he said. “A judge must decide cases fairly, in accordance with the facts and the law. There are always two sides to every issue, and that sometimes makes this a difficult job. But it’s a job I enjoy.”
There are 260 state judges in Alabama. DeKalb County has the distinction of being the home to two of the longest serving judges in that number, as fellow Circuit Judge David Rains will outrank all but three judges in years of service when he begins his new term of office in January 2007.
“Judge Rains assumed office in 1981 and has served for 25 years,” Cole said. “He is a member of the Alabama Sentencing Commission, which has made extensive recommendations to the legislature for sentence reform in our state.”
Rains also serves as a judge on the Court of the Judiciary, and was the 1991 recipient of the Alabama State Bar Award of Judicial Merit.
Cole and Rains, along with Kevin Grimes, serve both DeKalb and Cherokee counties, which comprise the Ninth Judicial Circuit.
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Chief Justice Calls for Judges' Pay Hike
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
January 1, 2007
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Pay for federal judges is so inadequate that it threatens to undermine the judiciary's independence, Chief Justice John Roberts says in a year-end report critical of Congress.
Issuing an eight-page message devoted exclusively to salaries, Roberts says the 678 full-time U.S. District Court judges, the backbone of the federal judiciary, are paid about half that of deans and senior law professors at top schools.
In the 1950s, 65 percent of U.S. District Court judges came from the practicing bar and 35 percent came from the public sector. Today the situation is reversed, Roberts said, with 60 percent from the public sector and less than 40 percent from private practice.
Federal district court judges are paid $165,200 annually; appeals court judges make $175,100; associate justices of the Supreme Court earn $203,000; the chief justice gets $212,100.
Thirty-eight judges have left the federal bench in the past six years and 17 in the past two years.
The issue of pay, says Roberts, ''has now reached the level of a constitutional crisis.''
''Inadequate compensation directly threatens the viability of life tenure, and if tenure in office is made uncertain, the strength and independence judges need to uphold the rule of law -- even when it is unpopular to do so -- will be seriously eroded,'' Roberts wrote.
Legislation languished in Congress in 2006 that would have provided a 16 percent increase in federal judges' salaries. The bill was introduced by Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California, Patrick Leahy of Vermont and John Kerry of Massachusetts.
Leahy, incoming chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Roberts ''is right that the issue of judicial compensation relations to the issue of the independence of the judiciary.'' Leahy said the chief justice ''has tackled a touchy but timely topic that has been a chronic sticking point between the judicial and legislative branches.''
Over the past 16 years, Congress has provided the judiciary occasional cost-of-living adjustments, but Roberts said the absence of salary increases is ''grievously unfair.''
Leahy pledged ''to do what I can to convince Congress to fairly evaluate this issue and the chief's arguments so that we can see what solutions may be possible.''
It is the first time in the two-decade history of year-end reports by Roberts and his predecessor, the late William Rehnquist, that the chief justice's message has focused entirely on a single subject.
Roberts said the judiciary will not properly serve its constitutional role if it is restricted to people so wealthy that they can afford to be indifferent to the level of judicial compensation, or to people for whom the judicial salary represents a pay increase.
There are ''very good judges'' in both of those categories, said Roberts, but a judiciary drawn more and more from only those categories ''would not be the sort of judiciary on which we have historically depended to protect the rule of law in this country.''
''It changes the nature of the federal judiciary when judges are no longer drawn primarily from among the best lawyers in the practicing bar,'' Roberts wrote.
The number of cases filed in the Supreme Court increased for the court's 2005 term, according to an appendix to the report. Supreme Court case filings rose by more than 1,000 to 8,521 from the previous term. Appeals court filings dropped by 3 percent to 66,618 in 2006 compared with 2005.
In federal district courts, the number of criminal cases filed in 2006 declined by 4 percent to 66,860 cases and 88,216 defendants, due to changing priorities directing more resources to combating terrorism.
The civil caseload rose 2 percent to 259,541.
Excluding a jump in asbestos-related cases which totaled 18,179, the civil caseload fell by 4 percent.