As Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore stood trial Sept. 28 on charges he defied federal court rulings on same-sex marriage, an attorney for the Alabama Baptist Convention’s public policy auxiliary said he was “optimistic” Moore would retain his job.
Photo by Mary Pope
Rules of the Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission (JIC), the nine-judge panel before which Moore was tried, state that failure to issue a ruling within 10 days “shall constitute an acquittal.” A unanimous ruling is required to remove him from office, though a six-judge majority may impose lesser penalties.
“It’s difficult to predict what the judges that are sitting on the Judicial Inquiry Commission may do,” said Eric Johnston, an attorney who advises the Alabama Citizens Action Program, an auxiliary of the Alabama Baptist Convention. “I would be optimistic that they would look at it and say, ‘I may not agree with him on the marriage issue, but he didn’t do anything unlawful.’”
The media “has hyped [the case] up a great deal,” Johnston told Baptist Press, adding the present accusations are less clear cut than the 2003 case in which Moore was removed from office for refusing to remove a Ten Commandments display from the Alabama Judicial Building. In that case, Moore “was in violation of a federal court order.”
Moore, a Southern Baptist, was elected chief justice again in 2012.
At issue in the current case is a Jan. 6 administrative order in which Moore stated Alabama’s 68 probate judges had “a ministerial duty not to issue any marriage licenses contrary to” the state’s ban on same-sex marriage until the Alabama Supreme Court clarified the relationship between state law and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage.
Three months after Moore’s administrative order, the Alabama Supreme Court rejected challenges to same-sex marriage in the state and ruled the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell ruling required its legalization.
The JIC alleges in a 293-page complaint filed in May that Moore “failed to respect and comply with the law,” citing Obergefell among other cases, and seeks to have Moore removed from office.
When Moore arrived at his trial, he received a standing ovation from courtroom onlookers, according to a live Twitter feed of the proceedings hosted by AL.com. His popularity also was reflected in an August poll that found him atop the field of likely 2018 Republican gubernatorial candidates, AL.com reported.
In Moore’s testimony to the JIC, he said it was “ridiculous” to suggest he told probate judges to defy the U.S. Supreme Court, according to tweets posted on AL.com.
“I don’t encourage anyone to defy a federal court or state court order,” Moore said according to the Associated Press. “I gave them a status in the case, a status of the facts that these orders exist. That is all I did.”
Moore’s attorney Mat Staver, founder and chairman of the nonprofit legal organization Liberty Counsel, said in a statement the chief justice “merely gave a status report on the pending case and the JIC overstepped its authority to bring these politically-motivated charges.”
Staver cited a passage in Moore’s January memo to probate judges that seemed to support his argument.
In the passage Moore wrote, “I am not at liberty to provide any guidance to the Alabama probate judges on the effect of Obergefell on the existing orders of the Alabama Supreme Court. That issue remains before the entire Court which continues to deliberate on the matter.”
Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which filed multiple complaints over Moore’s conduct, told NPR the chief justice “doesn’t know the difference between being a judge and being a preacher” and “thinks his religious beliefs should trump his obligations under the law.”
John Carroll, a former SPLC legal director, was retained by the JIC as co-prosecutor of the case. Carroll currently is professor of law at Cumberland School of Law at Samford University, affiliated with the Alabama Baptist Convention.
People traveled from as far away as Illinois and Missouri to attend Moore’s trial, according to Tweets posted on AL.com, with some coming by bus.
Moore has been suspended from the bench since May pending the outcome of his case.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)