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'Not going to miss the Ayatollah of Alabama': State's chief justice ousted over anti-gay-marriage order

'Not going to miss the Ayatollah of Alabama': State's chief justice ousted over anti-gay-marriage order
Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore (Mickey Welsh / Montgomery Advertiser)

Roy Moore, the conservative Alabama chief justice who ordered probate judges across the state not to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, was ousted from his position Friday after an ethics panel found him guilty of violating the canons of judicial ethics.

The 69-year-old Baptist, who was removed outright from his position more than a decade ago, was suspended without pay for the remainder of his term. He cannot be reelected because of age restrictions.

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Moore faced six charges stemming from a contentious Jan. 6 order he sent Alabama probate judges, reminding them that they had a "ministerial duty" not to issue any marriage licenses to same-sex couples despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing such unions across all states.

In its 50-page final judgment, the state's Court of the Judiciary, a nine-member panel of judges, attorneys and private citizens, agreed that Moore was guilty of all six charges, including failing to uphold the integrity and independence of the judiciary and failing to abstain from public comment about a pending proceeding in his own court.

In 2003, Moore was removed from the bench after he repeatedly refused to obey a federal court order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the rotunda of Alabama's judicial building.

This time, the panel did not go so far as to officially remove Moore from his position — a penalty that requires unanimous agreement — but all its members agreed he should be suspended from office, based upon the "clear and convincing evidence" of Moore's violations of the canons of judicial ethics, "his disregard for binding federal law" and "his history with this court."

Mat Staver, Moore's attorney, said Friday that he was "disgusted and disappointed" by the decision and would file an appeal with the Alabama Supreme Court.

"They cannot remove a judge without nine votes and they don't have nine votes, so they concoct some other way that's a de facto removal without calling it a removal," he said. "What's the difference between removing somebody and saying you can't ever come back on the bench and you can't get paid for the rest of the two and a half years of your term? There's no difference."

Richard Cohen, the president of the Southern Poverty Law Center — which filed the initial ethics complaint against Moore — said in a statement that Moore had disgraced his office by putting his personal religious beliefs above his duty to uphold the U.S. Constitution and the panel had done Alabama citizens a great service.

"Moore was elected to be a judge, not a preacher. It's something that he never seemed to understand," Cohen said. "The people of Alabama who cherish the rule of law are not going to miss the Ayatollah of Alabama."

On the witness stand Wednesday, Moore — who once referred to homosexuality as "abhorrent, immoral, detestable" — played down his moral beliefs, saying his order "had nothing to do with the way I feel about same-sex marriage."

Dismissing the scrutiny of his ethical conduct as "ridiculous," Moore maintained he was just trying to address confusion among probate judges over conflicting state and federal orders. His order, he insisted, was merely a "status report," instructing them that the effect of the U.S. Supreme Court's Obergefell vs. Hodges ruling on existing cases still awaited a decision by the Alabama Supreme Court.

In its final judgment, the panel stated that it did not accept his argument. "The reality," appellate Judge J. Michael Joiner wrote on behalf of the panel, was "that Chief Justice Moore was in fact 'ordering and directing' the probate judges."

Ultimately, the court fashioned a Solomonic resolution that effectively removed Moore from office while avoiding the appearance of overriding the preference of Alabama voters who elected him to office, said Ronald Krotoszynski, a law professor at the University of Alabama.

"The practical effect is, I think, indistinguishable in that he will no longer to be able to hear and decide cases as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the state of Alabama."

Moore's January order was widely interpreted as a last-ditch stand in the ongoing war between the state and federal judiciary over same-sex marriage. Last year, a federal judge ruled that same-sex couples have a right to wed in Alabama. However, two months later, the Alabama Supreme Court declared that the state's ban on same-sex marriages was constitutional and ordered probate judges to enforce it.

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After the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in its historic ruling in June 2015, U.S. District Judge Callie V. Granade ruled that it was binding on the state. In October, the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals said the U.S. Supreme Court ruling "held that bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional" and "abrogated" existing orders.

Many have speculated that Moore may use this latest controversy to kick off a campaign for governor or attorney general.

But some political experts note that though Moore performs well with the Republican base — a recent poll of likely GOP voters put him atop a list of the party's possible 2018 gubernatorial candidates — he is unlikely to win over the general electorate. In 2006 and 2010, he lost campaigns for governor.

Alabama continues to rank as one of the nation's most conservative and evangelical states, but there has been a gradual softening of public attitudes on same-sex marriage. A decade ago, more than 80% of Alabama voters passed the Alabama Sanctity of Marriage Amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage. But by 2014, the number of Alabamans who opposed allowing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender couples to marry legally had dropped to 59%, according to an American Values Atlas survey.

For the second time in 13 years, Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore stands trial Wednesday on charges of violating the canons of judicial ethics.

Jarvie is a special correspondent

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UPDATES:

3:15 p.m.: The article was updated with comments from Moore's attorney.

10:05 a.m.: This article has been updated with a staff reporting.

This article was originally published at 9:51 a.m.

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