Alabama dissolves court case won by black woman

The rain was pouring down the day Tiara Young Hudson won the Democratic primary as a circuit court judge in Alabama County, where she has long served as a public defender. Voters were not discouraged.

When ballots were counted in Jefferson County, the state’s most populous and diverse, they showed more than 31,000 people had braved the storm to vote in the primary that day in May. . Fifty-four percent of them chose Hudson.

With no Republican challenger in the race, the result equaled Hudson’s victory in the November general election. The lawyer, wife, mother and devoted practitioner rejoiced, thanking her family and God in a public Facebook post.

Hudson was on track to be the first public defender to serve as a Jefferson County Circuit Court judge and the first black woman with public defender training to sit on the bench anywhere in Alabama.

The party was short-lived.

Just over two weeks later, a racially divided state commission dissolved the judgeship that Hudson had actually won.

First, Circuit Judge Clyde Jones resigned from his seat, eight days after the May 24 primary and seven months before his term expires. That gave the Judicial Resources Allocation Commission (JRAC) — created by Alabama’s Republican-dominated legislature in 2017 — an opportunity to consider moving its seat.

The following week, the commission voted to permanently move the county seat from Jefferson County, which has the highest crime rate in Alabama, to majority-white Madison County. The three black members of the commission voted against the transfer of the post of judge. All eight white members voted yes.

The JRAC president called the decision a simple matter of filling a need in Madison County. But the transfer of the post of judge, the first by the commission since its creation, has met with overwhelming objections. At a JRAC meeting before the vote, members of the public testified that the move strips a county with a large black population of an essential resource and gives that resource to a county where whites make up nearly 70% of the population. population (compared to 48% in Jefferson County).

Last month, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama filed a lawsuit on Hudson’s behalf challenging the constitutionality of the transfer.

Underlying the case is a question that goes to the heart of the SPLC’s mission: by stripping a judge’s post from the state’s largest metropolitan area, where criminal cases are numerous and complex, an injustice being committed? And is this new commission equipped to reshuffle judgeships in such a way that diverse communities lack fair representation in the justice system?

“It is up to the power of the people to have representation. This is about the power to vote,” said SPLC suffrage lawyer Ahmed Soussi. “Judges are popularly elected in Alabama, and we believe the constitution states that only the legislature decides how many judges can be in a specific area. The JRAC does not represent the people. It is this niche state agency that is taking this first big step. We want to challenge this right away, because we think it’s unconstitutional, and we want to make sure that no other judge is unconstitutionally removed. If we don’t, what’s to stop the JRAC from removing all of the judges from Jefferson County? »

According to the complaint, the decision to eliminate the Tenth Judicial Circuit of Jefferson County, the 14th-place judgeship and permanently move the seat to the Twenty-Third Judicial Circuit of Madison County violates the Constitution of Alabama. The state constitution, the plaintiffs say, only gives the legislature — not a commission created by it, unelected and unaccountable to voters — the power to reassign judgeships. White members of the commission have repeatedly attempted to transfer the judgeships from Jefferson County to Madison County, but have so far been unsuccessful, according to the complaint.

At a hearing on August 8, attorneys for the SPLC and ACLU of Alabama asked a judge to issue a preliminary injunction to immediately block the commission’s decision.

On August 12, Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Jimmy B. Pool dismissed the suit on the grounds that the plaintiff failed to use the correct procedure to remove a sitting judge in these circumstances. As a result, the judgeship will remain in Madison County unless a higher court overturns Pool’s decision.

“We are disappointed that the court has refused to step in and prevent this unconstitutional removal of a Birmingham Circuit Court judge from office,” Soussi said. “The Jefferson County community deserves fair representation on the bench and access to a court system with all the resources to serve them, but Alabama’s current system denies them both.”

Birmingham, Alabama downtown metropolitan skyline. (Credit: Sean Pavone/Alamy Image Bank)

“power to vote”

The JRAC was created to assess and report to the Legislative Assembly on the need for judges. The law creating the commission also aims to give it the power to move a judge’s post to other districts or circuits in the event of a judicial vacancy. In Alabama, circuit courts have jurisdiction over felony suits and civil lawsuits with claims over $10,000.

The lawsuit filed by the SPLC and ACLU asked a state court in Montgomery, the capital, to overturn the JRAC decision and instead demand that Governor Kay Ivey follow the constitutional process to fill the vacancies in Jefferson County. As part of this process, the governor must nominate one of three nominees proposed by the Jefferson County Judiciary Commission. Hudson applied to be one of those nominees.

“With his order dismissing Tiara Hudson’s cause of action, Judge Pool ruled that it was acceptable for the Judicial Resources Allocation Commission to do the work of the Legislative Assembly,” said Tish Gotell Faulks, Director of the ACLU of Alabama.

Flawed study

Hudson said she has been deeply frustrated since the announcement of the move. There are so many things in the county’s criminal justice system that need fixing, she said, and she was eager to tackle those issues.

“I have the experience and the perspective to fix them,” Hudson said, “not just for those charged with crimes, but also for victims.”

Born in Birmingham, where she lives with her husband and three children, Hudson is a graduate of Emory University and the University of Alabama School of Law. A criminal defense attorney throughout her career, Hudson has served as Jefferson County’s public defender for the past eight years.

“I ran for this seat because of the things I see in our criminal justice system that need to be handled differently for the good of our communities,” Hudson said. “I don’t have all the solutions, but I’m willing to go beyond the bench to try to heal communities and restore lives. Over 16,000 people came out in the pouring rain and voted for me and my vision. So this trial is really about the voice of the people. People have come out, they have exercised their right to vote and their voice has just been ignored. This is the most disturbing part for me. I’d like to think that even if my opponent had won, it didn’t just have to be a siege, someone was elected to disappear.

In his role as JRAC President, Alabama Chief Justice Tom Parker cited a judicial workload study as evidence of the need to move the judicial seat to Madison County. The study found that judges in Madison County handled more cases than those in Jefferson County.

This study, however, is deeply flawed, according to the lawsuit. In Madison County, each count against an accused is counted as a separate case. In Jefferson County, the court system counts multiple charges against one person as one case, which makes the total caseload seem smaller.

According Data compiled by the state, more than 28,000 crimes were reported in Jefferson County in 2019, the most recent year for which data is available, a rate of 77,464 per 100,000 population. In Madison County, reported crimes that year were just over 13,000, a rate of 24,532 per 100,000 population.

Need more judges

No one disputes that Madison County could use more judges. But so are every other county in the state, Soussi said. Indeed, the State of Alabama is sorely lacking in judges to properly rule on the number of cases going through its courts. Lawmakers have funding for 20 additional judge positions, according to the lawsuit, but did not use the money to increase the total number of judge positions. This makes the question of where to place existing judges particularly tricky.

“For us, it comes down to the demographic makeup of Jefferson versus Madison County,” Soussi said. “Jefferson County is much bigger and much more diverse. And it was already an existing seat in the county, so why remove it? Why entrust this to a new state commission that has no accountability and no constitutionality? What we are saying is that we all have to work together to get our legislators to make the tough decisions to fund more judges. Let’s go. Let’s look. Let’s work together on this.

Until more judges become a reality, Jefferson County needs the ones it has, Hudson said.

“I know I can’t force anyone to put me in this seat, but the seat should go to Jefferson County,” Hudson said. “It is necessary here. And I want people to know that their voice and their vote count. »

Top photo: Tiara Hudson (Credit: Andrew Wells/Wells Media Group)

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