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MONTGOMERY - The state Judicial Inquiry Commission's budget ballooned by almost 75 percent last budget year, fueled mostly by expenses to prosecute and defend itself against cases stemming from the 2000 elections.
A Birmingham law firm is charging more than $115,000 for helping to prosecute Justice Harold See on ethics charges and for defending the commission in See's federal lawsuit.
A Mobile law firm has billed nearly $60,000 to defend against a suit alleging the commission violated candidates' free speech rights by prohibiting them from answering a Christian Coalition pre-election questionnaire.
The commission's legal costs in the two cases dwarfed the $16,635 it was billed for outside lawyers during fiscal year 2000 and the $8,952 billed the previous year. Along with the addition of a third staffer last year, the legal costs sent the commission's budget from $233,592 in 2000 to $405,304 in 2001.
The commission had to rely on emergency funds from Gov. Don Siegelman to pay the bills this year, an action that drew sharp criticism from Twinkle Andress, executive director of Citizens for a Sound Economy.
"They went to the governor and requested an extra 90 grand to fund these lawsuits at a time when the state is in proration and there's not enough money for our school children," said Ms. Andress, who describes her group as a grassroots organization that promotes less taxes and government.
"It looks very much like a partisan witch-hunt with our tax dollars," she said. "They've only gone after Republicans."
But Margaret Childers, the commission's executive director, said both cases involve important issues that must be resolved. Outside lawyers were needed because Attorney General Bill Pryor removed his office from handling either case because of a conflict of interest, she said.
Pryor recused himself and appointed lawyers requested by the commission because he had supported the Republican candidates in their campaigns, said Richard Allen, Pryor's chief deputy. 'They got a bargain'
James C. Barton and Marc Givhan of Johnston Barton Proctor & Powell in Birmingham billed the JIC for hundreds of hours of work in the See case at $150 per hour - a rate, Givhan said, that is substantially lower than their usual rate.
"Litigation does cost money," Givhan said. "In this marketplace, they got a bargain."
Givhan said he usually charges $225 per hour and Barton usually charges $300 per hour. Both are recognized for their expertise in First Amendment issues.
In the See case, the JIC - the agency created by the Alabama Constitution to investigate ethics complaints against state judges - accused See of violating judicial ethics rules by falsely accusing his Republican primary opponent - now Chief Justice Roy Moore - of being soft on drug defendants. See's federal lawsuit, in turn, accused the JIC of violating his First Amendment free speech rights.
See was temporarily disqualified from serving on the Alabama Supreme Court, but U.S. District Judge Judiciary, Page 3B 1B Ira DeMent ordered him restored to office pending a final decision in the case.
The JIC appealed DeMent's injunction to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled See should have taken his case to state courts. See asked the 11th Circuit weeks ago to reconsider, but has received no answer to his request. Meanwhile, he remains on the court.
Bill Baxley, representing See, said he is uncertain if he will take See's free speech claim to the Court of the Judiciary or directly to the Alabama Supreme Court if the federal appeals court refuses to reconsider.
"We will not cross that bridge until we get to it," said Baxley. 'I'm losing money'
The commission hired the Frazer Greene Upchurch and Baker law firm in Mobile to defend it in the federal lawsuit filed by the Christian Coalition and several Republican candidates, who contended their First Amendment free speech rights were violated.
U.S. District Judge Randy Butler of Mobile issued an injunction blocking the commission from prosecuting the candidates, but the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last month overturned the injunction and ordered Butler to submit state law questions in the case to the Alabama Supreme Court. Butler hasn't done so.
The Frazer law firm has billed the commission nearly $60,000 in that case, but lawyer Danner Frazer Jr. said he charged the commission $150 per hour, substantially less than his usual rate of $235 per hour.
"I'm working on this case at almost half of my usual hourly rate, which I consider public service. I'm losing money," said Frazer.
"There's nothing more important in this state than the independence of the judiciary," he said.
Politicizing judges by trying to "get them to rule on cases according to someone's political agenda would be a terrible development," he said.
GRAPHIC: Photo, Justice Harold See Prosecuting him on judicial ethics charge costly to Judicial Inquiry Commission.