Perhaps the best-known trial to take place in Alabama is one from the pages of fiction – the 1935 trial of Tom Robinson for the rape of Mayella Ewell in Maycomb County, Alabama, the pivotal event in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
The elephant in the courtroom is race – Tom is black; Mayella is white – and considering the locale and the timeframe, there’s little doubt how the storyline will play out.
That elephant will be back in a Montgomery courtroom next month when a federal judge will hear arguments in a 2016 lawsuit over Alabama’s method of seating its appellate judges. The suit brought by four black voters and the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP maintains that the method of seating these jurists through statewide, at-large elections dilutes the voting power of African-America voters.
It should be an interesting case. The long history of U.S. Justice Department oversight of Alabama’s legislative district lines to ensure minority representation in the state house appears to undergird the plaintiffs’ argument.
A larger complaint, however, is that jurists are seated by election at all.
By filling judicial seats through partisan elections, hopefuls are forced to declare a party, seek and accept campaign contributions and walk a fine line with regard to campaigning – none of which engenders confidence in the expectation of impartiality.
A better course would be a thoughtful creation of a panel to bring forward nominations, with nominees put through a legislative confirmation process. A process such as this could address existing concerns, not only of inequitable racial representation on the upper courts, but of naked partisanship and potential biases on the court.