Judge says Alabama judicial elections don’t discriminate

February 6, 2020 GMT

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — A federal judge on Wednesday upheld Alabama’s method of electing appellate judges by statewide vote, rejecting claims that it is racially discriminatory and ensures an all-white court.

U.S. District Judge Keith Watkins ruled in favor of Alabama in the 2016 lawsuit brought by the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP and several black voters. The lawsuit contended the at-large method of electing judges violates the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution because it dilutes the voting power of African Americans in the state and keeps them from electing their preferred candidates.

Watkins noted that two African Americans have been elected to the Alabama Supreme Court previously.

“African Americans have served at the highest reaches of state government, and they can do so again,” Watkins wrote.

“Based on the evidence, Alabama’s at-large, statewide system of electing appellate judges today is benign of racial hostility, either overt or covertly lurking in the recesses of and is not racially discriminatory either in its adoption or maintenance,” Watkins wrote.

Alabama’s appellate judges run in statewide partisan elections, just like the governor, attorney general and other top officials. Only two African-American judges have ever been elected to the Alabama Supreme Court and none have been elected to the civil and criminal appellate courts. The state Supreme Court has been all-white for nearly 20 years.

The lawsuit has sought to switch the state to elections by districts, or another method, of electing appellate judges.

Benard Simelton, president of the of the Alabama NAACP conference, said the decision was a “significant disappointment.” He said they will review the ruling before making a decision on whether to appeal.

Simelton said the judge found African American voters had an opportunity to elect the judge of their choice in the last election. “I don’t think that’s true from our perspective,” Simelton said.

During arguments in the case, plaintiff attorneys displayed a pyramid with the faces of elected judges in Alabama. Although the judges elected to lower local courts are racially diverse, the spots at the top of the pyramid — signifying the state’s most important courts — are all white.

The state maintained political party preference was behind the racial shift on the court.

“Alabama’s statewide system of electing appellate judges was first approved more than one hundred years ago and is similar to election methods used in other States. Election outcomes are the result of partisan shifts in the State’s voting population and not due to an intent to favor or to disfavor any particular ethnic group,” Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall said in a statement.