August 23, 2003
Judge Suspended for Defying Court on Ten Commandments
By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
Chief Justice Moore, who used the Ten Commandments issue to rise from obscurity in rural Alabama to the highest judgeship in the state, will face a trial by the Court of the Judiciary of Alabama, which acted today and will rule if he should lose his job permanently.
Meanwhile, the titanic slab of granite remained in the rotunda and continued to be a rallying point for hundreds of evangelical Christians. Some marched with Bibles, some brandished cardboard cutouts of the Ten Commandments tablets and others sang out, "I shall not be moved!"
Chief Justice Moore made no public appearances today. But he said in a television interview before his suspension was announced, "My dispute is with the federal courts who have intruded into state affairs, and we are taking this matter to the United States Supreme Court." The United States Supreme Court, however, has already rejected one of his appeals, and legal analysts say they do not expect it to side with Chief Justice Moore.
His critics praised the suspension. "It's perfectly appropriate because he openly and flagrantly violated a federal court order," said Morris Dees, chief trial counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of the civil liberties groups that argued that Chief Justice Moore had violated constitutional guarantees of the separation of church and state. "There's no question about it. This is the beginning of the end."
Not so, say others who predict the suspension will add to the swelling popularity of Chief Justice Moore, a Republican elected to the post. "This will only increase his martyrdom," William Stewart, a political science professor at the University of Alabama, said. "It shows how far he is willing to go for the cause."
Starting today, Chief Justice Moore is suspended, with pay, pending the outcome of a trial held by the Alabama Court of the Judiciary. That court may actually convene in the courtroom he presided over.
The charge stems from an ethics complaint that Chief Justice Moore failed to "observe high standards of conduct" and "respect and comply with the law." The four judges and three lawyers on the Judicial Court are appointed by various legal organizations. The last time the court removed a judge was April 1999. Chief Justice Moore has 30 days to respond officially.
The chief justice ran afoul of the law by refusing to move his monument, known by some as Roy's Rock, by the midnight deadline on Wednesday. The next day the other eight justices on the court voted unanimously to overrule him and move the monument. The federal judge presiding over the case threatened to fine Chief Justice Moore $5,000 for every day the monument remained in public view. Since the chief justice was being sued in his official capacity, the State of Alabama, which is hundreds of millions of dollars in debt, was on the hook.
Today, before the suspension was announced, Judge Myron H. Thompson of Federal District Court decided to withhold fines or a contempt of court finding if the monument was moved within a week or so, said Ayesha Khan, legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Chief Justice Moore has said he will not try to block the removal of the monument.
Officials have been cautious about provoking the increasing number of Chief Justice Moore's supporters who have turned the courthouse steps into a campground, and a revival. Today, many huddled under the gargantuan pillars of the courthouse singing hymns and praying.
In the past, he has said that when he hung a rosewood plaque of the Ten Commandments above his bench in Gadsden, Ala., 11 years ago, he was not looking for a crusade, but a decoration. Back then, few outside his patch of northeastern Alabama had heard of him.
Chief Justice Moore, a Baptist, grew up broke, the son of a jackhammer man. He attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he graduated 640th out of a class of 800. After he served in Vietnam, he became a prosecutor. During a 1978 murder trial, he sliced his suit with a Buck knife while trying to act out a murder.
Three years after he hung the rosewood Ten Commandments plaque above his bench, the American Civil Liberties Union sued, but Chief Justice Moore won that case.
The Ten Commandments issue sent his name recognition into that layer of the stratosphere that few judges this side of Lance Ito ever reach. But it did not help his legal acumen, said Jim Hedgspeth, district attorney in Gadsden. "To me he didn't even know the law," Mr. Hedgspeth said. "Most of the time he would get the idea that the law books around him were there for decoration, not for use."
In 2000, Mr. Moore ran for Alabama chief justice, on the slogan "Roy Moore: Still the Ten Commandments Judge." He won easily. In July 2001, without the permission of the other justices, he installed the Ten Commandments monument in the State Supreme Court. He rejected requests to include a statue of an atom or a copy of the Koran. His argument was that American law was based on Judeo-Christian beliefs. His display, he said, was a statement about the moral underpinning of law, not an advancement of one religion over another.
In November, Judge Thompson ruled that the monument was "nothing less than an obtrusive year-round religious display." He gave Chief Justice Moore, who appealed the ruling, until Wednesday to move it.
Observers say Chief Justice Moore's genius is the way he framed the issue. "He made it sound like he stood for God and everybody who opposed him was against God," Shelby Foote, the Memphis historian, said. "For a lot of people with simple minds, that makes perfect sense. And once he started grabbing headlines, he just didn't want to let go."
August 25, 2003
A Monument to Religion, or Law? (6 Letters)
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