Alabama's Chief Justice Faces Ethics Charges For Second Time

Sep 28, 2016
Originally published on September 30, 2016 9:18 am

Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, a Republican, is fighting to keep his job. He's accused of violating judicial ethics for telling local judges they were bound by Alabama's gay marriage ban — and not the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark ruling legalizing same-sex marriage.

His trial is set to start Wednesday. He has been suspended pending the trial, and faces removal from the bench.

"Roy Moore doesn't know the difference between being a judge and being a preacher," says Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center. The Alabama-based group filed several ethics complaints over Moore's conduct.

"He thinks his religious beliefs should trump his obligations under the law, and that's a dangerous thing," Cohen says.

Moore forced the debate last year when he issued orders in conflict with a Mobile, Ala., federal judge's ruling that struck down the state's ban on same-sex marriage. Here's what he told NPR at the time:

"If we sit back and let the federal courts intrude their powers into state sovereignty, then we're neglecting everything about which the Constitution stands," Moore said.

The result was confusion in marriage license offices throughout Alabama. Some closed down altogether. Even after the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed marriage equality, Moore told local judges that they had a "ministerial duty not to issue any marriage license contrary to" state laws forbidding same-sex marriage.

Now Moore is defending himself against several ethics charges, including failing to act with impartiality, independence and integrity; and failing to respect and comply with the law.

Moore argues he didn't tell local judges to disobey the Supreme Court, only that there remained a conflict between state and federal court orders.

Moore's attorney is Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, a Florida group that litigates conservative Christian causes.

He says Moore is being targeted for his religious views.

"This is a politically motivated complaint," Staver says. "It's no doubt in this case. The Southern Poverty Law Center has a complaint against the chief justice because of his views on marriage."

Moore has been here before. He was ousted on ethics charges in 2003 after defying a federal court order to remove a giant Ten Commandments monument from the Alabama judicial building. Voters elected him chief justice again in 2012.

His attorney says Moore is still deciding whether he will testify during Wednesday's trial. It would take a unanimous decision by the nine-member Court of the Judiciary to remove him from office again.

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The chief justice of Alabama, having ruled on many defendants, is a defendant himself today. Roy Moore is on trial for defying the federal judiciary over same-sex marriage. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Republican Chief Justice Roy Moore is fighting to keep his job. He's accused of violating judicial ethics for telling local judges they were bound by Alabama's gay marriage ban, not the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark ruling legalizing same-sex marriage.

RICHARD COHEN: Well, Roy Moore doesn't know the difference between being a judge and being a preacher.

ELLIOTT: Richard Cohen is president of the Southern Poverty Law Center. The Alabama-based group filed several ethics complaints over Moore's conduct.

COHEN: He thinks his religious beliefs should trump his obligations under the law, and that's a dangerous thing.

ELLIOTT: Moore forced the debate when he issued orders in conflict with a Mobile federal judge's ruling that struck down Alabama's ban on same-sex marriage. Here's what he told NPR at the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ROY MOORE: If we sit back and let the federal courts intrude their powers into state sovereignty, then we're neglecting everything about which the Constitution stands.

ELLIOTT: The result was confusion in marriage license offices throughout Alabama. Some closed down all together. Even after the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed marriage equality, Moore told local judges they had a, quote, "ministerial duty not to issue any marriage license contrary to state laws forbidding same-sex marriage."

Now, Moore is defending himself against several ethics charges, including failing to act with impartiality, independence and integrity and failing to respect and comply with the law. Moore argues he didn't tell local judges to disobey the Supreme Court, only that there remained a conflict between state and federal court orders.

Moore's attorney is Matt Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, a Florida group that litigates conservative Christian causes.

MATT STAVER: This is a politically motivated complaint.

ELLIOTT: Staver says Moore is being targeted for his religious views.

STAVER: It's no doubt in this case. The Southern Poverty Law Center has a complaint against the chief justice because of his views on marriage.

ELLIOTT: Moore has been here before. He was ousted on ethics charges in 2003, after defying a federal court order to remove a giant Ten Commandments monument from the Alabama Judicial Building. Voters elected him chief justice again in 2012. His attorney says Moore is still deciding whether he will testify during today's trial. It would take a unanimous decision by the nine-member court of the judiciary to remove him from office again. Debbie Elliott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.