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Thou Shalt Not Campaign from the Bench

As we look back on the great Ten Commandments saga in Alabama, it’s easy to dismiss this event as just another example of why people should stop marrying their second cousins.

However, while that may be a good place to start, it isn’t a real solution to the problem. Even without the obvious chromosomal defects affecting Alabama Chief Justice Moore and his followers, this situation would have likely occurred anyway. The sad truth is that judges will continue to violate constitutional principles so long as they profit from doing so. Now, please don’t misunderstand me.

I’m not suggesting that Moore’s actions were motivated by monetary gain. Well, at least, not solely by monetary gain. Although I’m sure the New York Times is already reserving a space on the bestseller list for his upcoming book, You Shall Burn in Hell: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Ten Commandments Controversy.

Nevertheless, I suspect that Moore’s real motive was not financial but political gain. The justices on the Alabama Supreme Court are elected to six year terms. Therefore, Justice Moore’s chief concern is to be re-elected every six years. And, in Alabama, there is probably no better way to get elected than to pick a fight with you and God on one side and those “damn Yankee” federal judges on the other side.

In fact, prior to ascending to the high court, Judge Moore erected a wooden plaque of the Commandments in his courtroom. While this action resulted in two court challenges, it also resulted in a loyal constituency for Moore. In fact, some suggest that his crusade to give a “shout out” to God won the election for him.

Upon being elected, Moore had a 5,280 pound granite monument installed in the rotunda of the Supreme Court building. Less than three months later, the ACLU and others brought a lawsuit claiming that the monument was an endorsement of Judeo-Christian religion violating the 1st Amendment’s prohibition against the establishment of religion. From a legal standpoint, this case is much like President Bush — a no-brainer. In case after case, the U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that the government can’t promote religion in this manner. Surely, Moore, who was presumably qualified to hold the highest judicial office in Alabama, must have known that he had as much chance of winning this case as I have of co-hosting Good Day Alabama.

However, Moore’s primary concern in this matter was winning votes not legal battles. Moore’s crusade for the Ten Commandments has secured his base of support ­ the religious fanatics. Obviously, this is a very powerful (even if mostly toothless) group in the Yellowhammer State.

While this situation is good for humor writers (I’m just getting started with Alabama jokes), it’s terrible for the rest of you. It not only creates ridiculous situations like this one but prevents state judges from upholding their duty to the law in more serious matters.

In several states, judges are elected as opposed to appointed.

These elected judges must take into account political factors and are not free to always follow the law. Now, just imagine if the U.S. Supreme Court had consulted opinion polls before deciding the major civil rights cases of the 1960s. If they had, blacks would still live in poverty, experience abuse at the hands of the police and attend inferior schools.

Well, on second thought, perhaps this isn’t the best example.

Seriously, most of the civil rights rulings of the 1960s were handed down in spite of great public opposition. These unpopular decisions, which brought justice and equal opportunity to millions of black Americans like my parents, were only possible because the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court were appointed for life.

Without this type of job security, it’s possible that the justices would have ruled differently. After all, for these men, being a Supreme Court justice was the culmination of a lifetime of scholastic achievement, hard work and marrying into the right family.

It’s unlikely they would have chosen to give it all up to do something as crazy as “the right thing.” Unfortunately, judges in many states are faced with this same dilemma everyday. And all too often they chose to satisfy the demands of the voters instead of the demands of the law, their consciences and the party who offered the best bribe.

As the followers of Chief Justice Moore would say, “this just ain’t be right!”

SEAN CARTER is a lawyer, comedian, public speaker and the author of If It Does Not Fit, Must You Acquit? Your Humorous Guide to the Law. He can be reached at www.lawpsided.com.

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