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Obama Should Be Listening to This Message About Justice

Cross Posted at Legal Schnauzer

Democrats in Alabama sent a resounding message last week with their surprising resolution to a dispute over the nominee for a judicial seat in Jefferson County. We would suggest that President Barack Obama pay attention.

By choosing Elisabeth French over Nicole Gordon Still for the judicial nomination in Birmingham, the Alabama Democratic Executive Committee (ADEC) revealed a distaste for anyone with connections to the state’s political and corporate elite. Because the decision involved a judgeship, the ADEC also seemed to be expressing its concern about the justice system–in Alabama and beyond.

The message, in our view, boils down to this: "We’ve seen our federal justice system used as a political weapon. We’ve seen corporate interests buy up our state justice system. Too many Democrats have stood by silently while this happened–and we are sick of it. We support judges who are not beholden to the business or legal establishment. We support judges who apply the law equally to all."

If Obama and other national Democrats ignore this message, they will do so at their peril. And we suspect they will pay a heavy price at the ballot box in November.

Alabama’s mainstream press has tended to portray ADEC’s decision as based on race. French is black and Still is white–and the nomination came open when Kenya Lavender Marshall, who is black and won the Democratic primary, had her law license suspended over allegations from the Alabama State Bar that she had misappropriated some $30,000 from a client account.

But this is not the first time recently that Alabama Democrats have rejected a candidate who seemed too cozy with the state’s elites. Just a few weeks back, Artur Davis was beaten soundly in the party’s primary for governor. Davis, who is black, had sought support from the Business Council of Alabama and other corporate types. Still had been appointed to the judicial seat last June by GOP Governor Bob Riley, and we suspect that helped sink her chances with the Democratic committee.

Also, an extraordinary speech by Montgomery attorney Joe Morgan Reed seemed to set the stage for the ADEC’s decision. (See video below.) In nominating French, Reed did something that lawyers almost never do–he admitted that our justice system is badly broken. After introducing himself as a member of the "brass knuckles wing of the Democratic Party"–and that fighting spirit seemed to resonate–Reed got down to the painful truth:

"For a lot of you who do not have a law license, I can tell you that one of the worst places you will go is a courtroom. You think you might be treated fairly, but you probably in all likelihood will not be. It is a different kind of justice–one that is Republican and one that is Democrat.

"We have Democrats who act like Republicans. We have Republicans who are definitely Republicans. We now have an opportunity to put a Democrat . . . a Democrat . . . a Democrat in office. . . .  We need a judge who will be a Democrat 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year."

With his brief speech, Joe Morgan Reed seemed to seize the day. And his nominee, Elisabeth French, went on to win handily.

No Republican qualified for the race, so French is expected to take her place on the court in January 2011.  Many questions remain, including this one: Did the Alabama State Bar treat Kenya Lavender Marshall fairly–or did it have political motives in acting only after Marshall had beaten Still in the Democratic primary?

The Alabama State Bar tends to act in a secretive fashion, so it is hard to answer such questions. The public knows little about the evidence against Marshall, and knows even less about whether she had a valid explanation for the problems with her trust accounts.

We can, however, attempt to compare her case to similar cases that have been before the State Bar. We know of one case in particular from the 1990s that involved three Birmingham lawyers and allegations that they mishandled client funds.

We have been looking back at that earlier case and will write about it shortly. What are our conclusions? Well, we are still working on that. But we know this: The 1990s case involved three white males, and the State Bar’s handling of that matter raises serious questions about whether Kenya Lavender Marshall was treated fairly.

For those who have concerns about equal protection and due process in postmodern America, a comparison of how the Alabama State Bar handled the two cases seems to add to the sense that our justice system is corrupt and tainted.

President Obama, so far, has chosen to do virtually nothing about justice issues, choosing to "look forward, not backwards." Progressives in Alabama seem to be saying that they are unhappy with that approach. We suspect the president will continue to ignore such concerns, and his party will pay a price.

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