Lawsuit Aims To Change How Alabama's Appeals Court Judges Are Elected
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
More than half a century after the Voting Rights Act aimed to end discrimination in voting, civil rights activists are charging that the system of voting in judges in Alabama is keeping African-American judges off the bench in that state's highest courts. Despite a large African-American population, not a single black judge presides over an appellate court. That has spurred a civil rights lawsuit aimed at changing the voting for an appellate court judge from statewide - that is, everybody in the state votes for any given candidate, to local districts. Today, the state will respond to that lawsuit.
Vanzetta McPherson is a retired federal magistrate judge from Montgomery, Ala. She talked with me about how having no black judges at the highest level impacts the black community.
VANZETTA MCPHERSON: Citizens want to believe that there are people on these tribunals who can identify with the experiences that they have had, who understand their claims and their defenses. In some cases, you can do that without living through it. In some cases, you simply cannot. So not seeing oneself on a bench year after year after year does have the tendency to dilute your faith in that system.
MONTAGNE: What about the nature of appellate courts? That is to say, these are courts of appeal.
MONTAGNE: It seems as if African-Americans will not see a judge who is African-American above the level of trial, and appeals are pretty important.
MCPHERSON: Appeals are very important. Unlike the trial court which establishes the facts, appeal courts establish the law. So yes, those rulings should affect the will of the people. In Alabama, approximately one quarter of its population is African-American. The will of that one quarter of the people is often disregarded in certain appellate decisions, especially appellate decisions that go directly to the interests of the African-American community.
MONTAGNE: Six other states elect judges in this way, statewide. Is it intentional? Is it a way to exclude minorities from the highest courts?
MCPHERSON: Yes, it is a way to dilute the vote of African-Americans. It's also a wait just - a way, rather, just to prevent African-Americans from occupying the bench.
Let me cite for you an example. There was an instance some years ago - I don't recall the year - when there was an African-American candidate for one of the intermediate appellate courts in Alabama. That candidate ran as a Republican. People in Alabama tend to vote block, either all Republican or all Democrat. When the election day came, that candidate who was African-American, did not win. Every other statewide Republican who was white did win. That demonstrated a deliberate effort to avoid voting for an African-American Republican.
MONTAGNE: You know, as an African-American who grew up in the segregated South, do you think Alabama has made progress when it comes to the federal courts during, say, this last half century?
MCPHERSON: Here in Montgomery, we hear those discussions all the time about how much progress Alabama has made. So yes, we've had progress in school desegregation. We've had progress in public accommodations, in elections, employment. But the progress has not come about as a result of voluntary action of its citizens, advocacy on the part of officeholders. It's been compelled by the courts.
MONTAGNE: You're talking about the federal courts?
MCPHERSON: Yes. I'm speaking strictly...
MONTAGNE: Dealing with the U.S. Constitution.
MCPHERSON: Dealing with the U.S. Constitution, absolutely. And without those court decisions, there would not be the progress that we see.
MONTAGNE: Joining us from Montgomery was retired federal Magistrate Judge Vanzetta McPherson.
Thank you very much for joining us.
MCPHERSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.