Chief Justice Race Brings Surprises
In 2003, a panel of state judges removed Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore from office for refusing to obey a federal judge’s order, pursuant to the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the state judicial building.
On November 6, 2012, Alabama voters returned him to office at the top of their state court system after a multi-million dollar campaign.
This result surprised many, for despite ranking first in the nation for candidate fundraising and overall spending in 2000-09, Alabama initially looked poised for a sleepy and inexpensive election in 2012. Republicans had solidified their control of the state’s high court—holding all nine seats—and observers predicted that support for long-shot Democratic candidates would largely dry up. Indeed, though five seats on the nine-person state Supreme Court were up for a vote in 2012, Republican candidates were running unopposed in all but one race in the general election and in all but two primaries.
Yet some surprising twists led to a $4 million campaign season in Alabama—still significantly less expensive than the races from the last decade, which included $14.5 million in spending in 2006, but high enough to place Alabama fifth in the nation in total spending in 2011–12.
The first turn came months before the election season even began, when then-Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb suddenly resigned in 2011. Once considered the Alabama Democratic Party’s brightest star and a potential candidate for governor, Cobb had been the only Democrat on the state Supreme Court and one of only two Democrats who held any statewide office. After her resignation, the Court consisted of exclusively Republican judges.
Explaining her decision to resign rather than campaign for an additional term on the Court, Cobb said she wanted to spend more time with her family after three decades on the bench. She also joked that she had realized “Big Oil and Big Business didn’t care if they won 8-1 or 9-0.”1 But Cobb also cited her disdain for the need to raise huge sums of money from potential litigants in order to mount a credible reelection campaign.2 The $8.2 million chief justice race in 2006, which Cobb won, was the second most-expensive single judicial race in U.S. history.
Cobb’s resignation was a serious blow to the state Democratic Party. The party chairman, a former state high court justice himself, could not recruit anyone to run for any of the five Supreme Court seats. The lone Democratic qualifier was Harry Lyon, a frequent fringe candidate for state office who declared his candidacy for chief justice.3
Meanwhile, in the March 2012 Republican primary for the chief justice seat, Moore was buoyed by a heavy turnout for presidential primary candidates Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. Moore then surprised observers by beating two mainstream Republican candidates (without needing a runoff). Stunned GOP leaders felt compelled to call a press conference to announce they supported the people’s choice for party nominee.4
The next twist came in August, when state Democratic leaders voted to remove Lyon from the ballot over anti-gay internet postings he had made while criticizing President Obama’s announcement in support of marriage for same-sex couples.
Lyon’s replacement was Robert Vance, a Birmingham civil-court judge and the son of a widely respected federal appeals court judge who was assassinated in a 1989 mail bombing. In the lead-up to the November election, Vance received close to a million dollars in financial support, from both Democrats and, perhaps surprisingly, mainstream Republicans concerned about some of Moore’s extreme views. Vance also contributed more than $240,000 in self-financing in his last-minute campaign.
Trying to build instant name recognition, Vance’s campaign spent more than $1 million airing TV ads during his 77-day campaign. Folksy ads drew on Vance’s commitment to public service. In one, Vance’s teenaged daughter assured viewers, “He may be a nerd, but he’s no politician.” Vance’s lone negative ad accurately pointed out that his opponent had defied a federal judge.
Meanwhile, Moore spent some $373,000 on TV air time during the general election, while the state Republican Party distributed direct mail pieces linking Vance with President Obama and invoking a comparison with “Chicago-style politics.”
Moore was also running during a presidential year in a traditionally Republican state where his name was well-known. On Election Day, he garnered 52 percent of the vote to regain the chief justice seat.
As long as the state Democratic Party remains weak and essentially abandons the field, million-dollar candidates are likely to become less common in Alabama’s judicial races. But as 2012 showed, anything can happen in Alabama judicial politics.
State in Focus: Alabama Notes
- Brian Lyman, Chief Justice Cobb Quits; No Timetable for New Appointment, Montgomery Advertiser, Jan. 30, 2011, http://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com/…; Sue Bell Cobb, Chief Justice of the Alabama State Supreme Court, Speech to Downtown Democrats in Birmingham (Nov. 4, 2011) (reported in Birmingham News print edition on Nov. 5, 2011).
- Lyman, supra note 1.
- Brendan Kirby, Blog, Most Controversial Candidate in Alabama Chief Justice Race? It May Not Be Roy Moore, Alabama Press-Register, Mar. 16, 2012, 7:00 AM, http://blog.al.com/…; Bob Gambacurta, Blog, Q&A With Mark Kennedy, Who Is Trying to Resurrect Democrats, Montgomery Independent, Apr. 11, 2011, 1:52 PM, http://blog.al.com/….
- Eric Velasco, Blog, Alabama Republicans Publicly Throw Their Support to Roy Moore in His Bid to Regain Chief Justice Post, Birmingham News, May 2, 2012, 2:26 PM, http://blog.al.com/….