Back Room Politics Behind Allegations Against See?

Today Alabama Citizens for a Sound Economy (CSE) Director Toby Roth challenged the fairness and impartiality of a secretive state legal committee which recently filed a complaint against conservative Alabama Supreme Court Justice Harold See. “It appears the same old back room politics are once again at work in Alabama, this time trying to unseat a sitting Justice who was duly elected by a majority of our state’s voters,” Roth stated.

Questions of political motivation surround the recent charges brought by the Judicial Inquiry Commission (JIC) against See on July 21, and it is not the first time that such skepticism has been directed at the actions of the appointed panel. In May, Chief Justice Perry Hooper expressed concern about the impact of “political opponents” on a JIC investigation (Birmingham Post-Herald, 5/3/00).

In the current matter against See, the JIC has not disclosed the details of their proceeding – such as how the members of the JIC voted or even who brought the complaint. Both Judge Roy Moore and the state’s Judicial Campaign Oversight Committee have publicly stated they did not initiate the charges against See. But beyond the secrecy, there are greater questions about the impartiality of certain JIC members.

Attorney J. Mark White exhibits the most striking appearance of a conflict of interest on the JIC. Most recently, White served as attorney for the Alabama Trial Lawyers Association in two recent high profile legal battles: the criminal prosecution of trial lawyer Garve Ivey in Mobile (Mobile Register, 3/11/99), and Attorney General Bill Pryor’s attempt to subpoena the records of a PAC controlled by the Alabama Trial Lawyers Association (Montgomery Advertiser, 2/20/98). The Trial Lawyers Association vehemently opposed See’s two general election campaigns for the Supreme Court in 1994 and 1996. In those two particular races White contributed to each of See’s opponents, Democrats Mark Kennedy (1994) and Kenneth Ingram (1996). White also served as campaign manager for Democrat Justice Ralph Cook’s 1994 campaign for the Supreme Court, and campaign manager to Democrat Justice Oscar Adams’ 1988 campaign for the high court.

According to Alabama CSE Director Roth, “Mark White’s apparent failure to recuse himself from the proceedings against Justice See stands in stark contrast to the actions of Attorney General Pryor, who agreed to remove himself from the matter in order to avoid the appearance of impropriety since he endorsed See in the June primary. Such conflict of interest taints the entire JIC proceedings against See.”

Yet another appearance of partiality arises from the JIC’s inaction in 1996 against Democrat Justice Kenneth Ingram for his infamous “skunk ad” and viciously personal ads against the very same Harold See. An explanation for this apparent favoritism would best be supplied by the two JIC members who still remain from the 1996 JIC panel that failed to act against Ingram: Democrat Circuit Judge Randall Cole of Ft. Payne and attorney Norman Waldrop, Jr., of Mobile. Cole and Waldrop currently serve as the Chairman and Vice Chairman, respectively, of the JIC.

Of the two Canons of Judicial Ethics See is charged with violating, Canon 2A reads the same as it did in 1996, specifically requiring a judge to “conduct himself in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.” Alabama CSE’s Toby Roth points out, “Ingram’s skunk ad and his even more offensive TV spot about See’s 20-year old divorce certainly make a more compelling case for a violation of Canon 2A and action by the JIC.”

Not surprisingly, many Alabamians are puzzled by the JIC’s seemingly different treatment of See in 2000 and Ingram in 1996. Asked an assistant professor of communications at Auburn University, “If this is getting a judicial inquiry, why didn’t that?” (Montgomery Advertiser, 7/27/00). Replies Roth: “Somewhere in the secretive – and apparently political – back room of the Judicial Inquiry Commission lies the answer to that and many other questions.”

Alabama CSE is the more than 5,000-member affiliate of Citizens for a Sound Economy, a 250,000-member national grassroots advocacy organization working to promote market-based solutions to public policy problems.