The Alabama Supreme Court
Cross Posted at Legal Schnauzer
Count me as one Democrat who can't find a reason to vote here on primary-election day in Alabama. I grew up in a household where our parents did not talk much about politics, but they seemed to always make a point of going to the polls--and that lesson has rubbed off on me, for the most part.
My parents, however, lived in a time and place where both parties had legitimate candidates for most races--and that meant you had a reason to show up, even for primaries. But I live in a time (2012) and place (Shelby County, Alabama) where there are no Democrats in local races, and things aren't much better at the statewide level. Given that our president is a Democrat with no primary opposition--and I wish he did have an opponent, so I could cast a protest vote for him or her--I'm planning to sit this one out.
My time will be better spent by doing something constructive--like obsessively checking my blog stats or having an extra long ear-scratching session with our tonks (the brother/sister combo of Baxter and Chloe).
The most important races on the ballot, in my view, are for 11 statewide judgeships on appellate courts. But there is one Democrat (total!) running against a herd of gun-toting, family-loving GOPers. I see no reason to vote in a primary for one unopposed Democrat. And to make matters worse, he's one of those perennial candidates who might have good intentions but has almost no chance of winning.
In sum, Democrats have pretty much given up on state-court races in Alabama. And that's in a state where Democrats controlled courts as recently as the mid 1990s. That was before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce funneled millions of dollars into the South, and Karl Rove helped convince voters that they needed "tort reform" and judges who were "strict constructionists."
How has that strategy worked? Like a charm, for Republicans; not so well, for the public. Charles Hall, a spokesman for the D.C.-based nonprofit Justice at Stake, summed it up in a recent article about Alabama court races. And he noted that Alabama is not the only state where corporate interests now dominate judicial races:
While campaign spending tends to be lower on primaries, (Hall) noted that Alabama Democrats have no contested appellate court primaries and will offer only one high court candidate in November. Hall said that the significant donors who once kept Democratic candidates competitive in statewide judicial elections have most likely become discouraged. He said Ohio has seen a similar pattern.
"I think it's really evidence that the Democrats and some of the trial lawyers and unions that have given heavily in the past simply are retreating from the field," he said. "The Democrats have spent million of dollars over the past decade and have nothing to show for it in the appellate courts in Alabama."
The folks in Ohio must be proud; they are almost as backward as we are here in Alabama. And make no mistake, this all is about taking the US of A backwards--to a time when people of color had no shot at a level playing field.
Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum might be the loudest voice on the national stage that wants to take us back to the pre-Brown v. Board of Education days of 1953--and even earlier. But he hardly is alone. I suspect that mindset is prevalent among quite a few right wingers who now control state courts in Alabama--and elsewhere.
Why have so many white, middle-class Americans come to reflexively vote Republican in state-court races? Do they really agree with Karl Rove on tort reform and the need to free corporations from accountability? I doubt it. My guess is that most Americans think of state judges in terms of the criminal-justice system, and they assume that Republicans are tougher on crime than Democrats. They also assume, I suspect, that people of color commit a disproportionate share of crime, so we need white Republican judges to keep those rogues in check.
Does this come with a price, especially in the civil justice system? Oh, yes--and the price tag is huge. Consider just a few news items of relatively recent vintage in Alabama:
* The ExxonMobil Case--An Alabama jury awarded the state more than $3.6 billion (with a "b") in a fraud lawsuit against oil giant ExxonMobil. Jurors found that ExxonMobil had intentionally shortchanged the state for natural-gas royalties, but the GOP-dominated Alabama Supreme Court overturned most of the award in late 2007.
* The AstraZeneca Case--An Alabama jury awarded the state $274 million in a fraud lawsuit against three pharmaceutical companies--AstraZeneca, Novartis, and GlaxoSmithKline. The Alabama Supreme Court overturned the award in 2009, finding the companies did not defraud the state in pricing Medicaid prespription drugs.
In just two cases, our pro-corporate high court cost the state almost $4 billion. Do everyday Alabamians want to live in a state where Big Oil and Big Pharma can come in and pretty much defraud us as they please? Recent voting patterns indicate the answer to that question, believe it or not, is yes. And those voting patterns have become so persistent that Democrats have given up on trying to win appellate court races--at least for now.
Isn't that depressing? Where are my tonks? I need some ears to scratch because going to the polls isn't likely to do any good.
I live in Birmingham, Alabama, and work in higher education. I became interested in justice-related issues after experiencing gross judicial corruption in Alabama state courts. This corruption has a strong political component. The corrupt judges are (more...