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Opportunity for Public Comment on New Statewide Voter ID Rules Ends September 4th

Lee Hedgepeth

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By Lee Hedgepeth
Alabama Political Reporter

In the 2011 Alabama legislative session, the state congress approved a voter ID measure that its Republican proponents claim will keep elections honest.

The law proscribes that certain types of photo identification must be provided when voting in Alabama. If a citizen does not have a sufficient type of identification, they are required to sign an affidavit testifying to that affect, and to go through a process of attaining a state-issued voter ID. The purpose of the law, according to Representative Kerry Rich, who sponsored the bill in the House, is to “help to ensure there is no voter fraud.”

Once passed, though, many questions about the law’s implementation loomed. According to the statute, the voter ID requirements would not take effect until January 2014, so no questions there. However, no one seemed certain on whether the state would eventually be required to preclear the law with the Department of Justice in accordance with Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act before enforcement.

So, whether actually unsure of a course of action, or waiting on a Supreme Court decision that was soon to come, Alabama sat on its hands in regard to the voter ID law. No implementation rules were extrapolated from the law because as of 2011 and 2012, the statute’s future was far from certain.

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However, its future soon became abundantly clear. With the decision in Shelby County v. Holder, the US Supreme Court secured the destiny of the voter ID law in Alabama. Within only a few days of the court’s opinion, proposed implementation rules rolled out of the Alabama Secretary of State’s office: it seems the voter ID law would not need preclearance after all. So story over, right?

Not so much. Since Shelby, verbal and political backlash against the law and ones similar to it nationwide have abounded, almost always from the left. Some liberals see the law as a Jim Crow style abridgement of voting rights.

The Brennan Center for Justice, for example, a New York University School of Law research center, released a forty page detailed report on how the law will put a significant and unnecessary burden to voting on many citizens in affected states. (Alabama became the ninth state to approve such a law.) It focused on nearly every aspect of the law and its implications, and put forward many criticisms. And these critiques and those like them have taken root in the state.

Since the Alabama Secretary of State has made available for public comment the implementation rules for the new voter ID rules, public opinion has begun to chime up. Organizations like the Alabama Democratic Majority have taken up the issue of what they consider “doing what you can for Voting Rights today.” In a recent action alert to its members, the ADM has posed some serious questions about the proposed rules:

Can any former college student use their student ID to vote?

What if the voter is elderly or infirm and is nonambulatory?

Does any agency in the State of Alabama even know how many people don’t have a photo ID?

How much will this cost?

How will the poll workers be trained?

What if someone’s voting address fails to match the address on their ID?

Will the Registrar’s Offices be open 8:00 – 5:00 every day?

What about folks who work and can’t get to the courthouse during business hours?

These questions accompany information about making public comment, and its importance in public discourse.

This is not to say that the true motive behind the voter ID law is malicious or discriminatory, at least, that is not what is being advanced here. The Alabama Democratic Majority may have its own agenda to follow, but good questions are good questions. Accountability is accountability. Transparency is transparency.

The proposed implementation rules are available for review on the Secretary of State’s website.

All public comments are due by this Thursday, September 4th. The office of the Secretary of State’s contact information can be reached here.

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Asst. US Attorney Clark Morris to take over AG’s public corruption unit

Josh Moon

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Alabama has a new public corruption watchdog.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Clark Morris was named on Tuesday as the new head of the Alabama Attorney General’s Office special prosecutions unit. Morris will take over the position in January following the firing on Monday of prosecutor Matt Hart.

“I am delighted that Clark Morris has agreed to lead my public corruption unit,” said AG Steve Marshall. “She is universally respected throughout the law enforcement community and is the kind of hard-nosed prosecutor you want on your team. Public corruption continues to be a scourge on our great state, and I am confident that the people of Alabama will be well served by Clark in this role.”

Morris is a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Department of Justice. She served as an Assistant United States Attorney in both the Middle and Northern Districts of Alabama.  In 2013, she was named First Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Middle District and has served two presidential administrations in that role. Her vast prosecutorial experience includes work in the White-Collar Crime Unit of the Middle District’s Criminal Division.  Morris also served as acting U.S. Attorney for the Middle District from March 2017 to November 2017.

“Mrs. Morris has been an incredible asset to the U.S. Attorney’s Office and her absence will be a huge loss,” U.S. Attorney Louis Franklin said. “However, her new position at the Attorney General’s Office creates an opportunity for a partnership that we have not seen in years.  Her leadership and judgment will serve the State of Alabama well, they are lucky to have her.”

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Opinion | Marshall axes Hart to please political donors

Bill Britt

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Despite nearly two dozen criminal investigations in progress, three empaneled grand juries and a major power grab underway at the State Ethics Commission, Attorney General Steve Marshall ambushed Special Prosecution Division Chief Matt Hart before he could enter his office at 501 Washington Avenue in Montgomery on Monday.

Marshall did not terminate Hart because he was an ineffective leader or an unsuccessful prosecutor, but because Hart is both those things and more.

Marshall is evil, but he’s also weak, which makes him a dangerous man.

With Hart’s forced resignation, Marshall kept his private campaign promises to his big donors that Hart would be gone after the general election. So, just 13 days after his election as attorney general and four years until the next election, Marshall moved on Hart like a coward who shoots a lawman in the back in a Hollywood Western movie.

Marshall is a spineless little man who withers in the presence of a man like Hart. It’s not just his lack of character and willingness to cut deals to achieve power, but his utter disregard for the justice system he oversees.

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Marshall is treacherous and is now unfettered from the constraints of an honest prosecutor.

While Marshall may have silenced Hart’s voice in the grand jury and at criminal trials, it is doubtful that Hart as a private citizen will remain quiet.

Hart knows what Marshall is up to, as well as the intrigue of the elites who paid for his office.

When disgraced Gov. Robert Bentley appointed Marshall, he intended for the men to clash. It was part of the plan. Bentley did not select Marshall because he was the best candidate to take on the attorney general’s position, but because he had a history of compromised investigations and virtually no record of prosecuting public corruption as a district attorney. But, it was Marshall’s willingness to investigate Hart and Van Davis, who successfully prosecuted former Speaker and convicted felon Mike Hubbard, that caused Bentley and his paramour, Rebekah Caldwell Mason, to green-light his appointment.

When Hart confronted Marshall over his compromise with Bentley, there was little hope that a working relationship would be in the making between the two men.

Marshall is afraid of Hart, but he is also jealous of him. After only a few weeks at the attorney general’s office, staffers noticed how jealous he was of Hart’s success, not only as a winning prosecutor but because of the admiration he enjoyed in the press. Staffers laughed at Marshall’s man-crush on Hart behind his back, saying he should grow a beard and maybe the press would like him, too.

It was Marshall’s jealously and unwillingness to ruffle feathers that separated the men; one wanting to be admired and the other wants to fight crime.

Over the last year, the relationship continued to strain as Hart set his sights on some of Marshall’s influential donors or those close to them.

APR repeatedly warned during the 2018 election cycle that if Marshall was elected, he would immediately turn on Hart. But that didn’t matter to the voting public because despite his corruption, Marshall had an R by his name. As for the power-elites, they are happy to see Hart go.

With Hart out of the picture, the so-called Ethics Reform Commission has free reign to gut current ethics laws without so much as a peep from the attorney general.

This is just one of the reasons Hart’s departure will result in the further erosion of good government in the state.

Currently, there are serious investigations underway, but there is little belief they will continue with any degree of success with Hart gone. Marshall has no interest in pursuing public corruption or white-collar crime because prosecutors make enemies and Marshall wants nothing more than to be liked.

Other unresolved issues that are of concern, not least among them, is the recent ruling by the State Ethics Commission, which gives the Commission power to reduce violations of the State’s Fair Campaign Practices Act by a mere vote of the commission. After being pressured by Hart in October, Marshall wrote the Ethics Commission asking them to withdraw and reconsider Advisory Opinion No. 2018-11, which granted the commission broad powers never envisioned by legislators who wrote the law. Hart’s ouster put in doubt whether Marshall will even pursue the issue, leaving the Ethics Commission with expanded powers.

According to sources within the Ethics Commission, there is a general feeling that Marshall will not challenge the commission because he is facing campaign finance charges for excepting $735,000 in alleged illegal contributions from the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA). Marshall has voices worrying that the commission has him over a barrel, leading him to tiptoe around any confrontation with the commission. As one insider said, “They got Marshall where they want him and he’s a pu**y who wouldn’t confront a granny in a wheelchair without his Chief Deputy.”

Another source of unfinished business is a recent ham-handed attempt by Ethics Commission Executive Director Tom Albritton involving a case against Scott Phillips and Trey Glenn. Last week, Albritton issued a press statement saying Jefferson County District Attorney Mike Anderton had requested the Ethics Commission help in indicting the two men. But, it was the Ethics Commission who approached Anderton, sources within his office have confirmed. Albritton also faces criticism and possible legal troubles because he disclosed the indictments before Phillips and Glenn were arrested, which may be a severe breach of state law. If Albritton is involved in wrongdoing, it would have fallen to Hart to prosecute.

November 18 is a dark day in Alabama history because corrupt politicians and those that want to corrupt now have a champion in Marshall.

Marshall can now say to those who put him in power, “Promises made, promises kept.”

But Marshall will do well to remember that actions have consequences, and there is a cost to corrupt acts, even if they are legal. More than one unscrupulous politico has met his fate at the end of a keyboard.

Marshall is saying he will take a hit from the media for firing Hart, but not a single elected official will say a word against him, according to those in the attorney general’s office.

Marshall believes that four years is long enough for people to forget he axed one of the state’s most successful prosecutors in the middle of multiple investigations to benefit his political donors.

But not everyone forgets, and there is a lot more to know about Marshall and what he has to hide.

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Opinion | RIP, ethics

Josh Moon

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The hope for ethics in Alabama’s state government died on Monday.

To be fair, it had been on life support for quite some time, having taken on several near-fatal blows over the last few years. But on Monday, after months of trying, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall finally took ethics out back, like Ol’ Yeller, and shot it dead.

Marshall’s firing of prosecutor Matt Hart, head of the AG’s special prosecution unit, was the death knell. The final straw. The five-finger death punch that snuffed out any small, lingering flame of hope.

That’s basically all Matt Hart was at this point — one small ray of hope in an otherwise hopelessly corrupt state.

Hart was one guy hellbent on making Democrats and Republicans alike respect the rule of law and stop profiting from their public positions.

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That’s all he wanted. And if he believed you had skirted the laws or accepted shady cash in order to benefit yourself, God bless you.

Larry Langford tried him. Robert Bentley tried him. Mike Hubbard threw everything and the prison sink at him.

Matt Hart beat ‘em all. And laughed at ‘em later.

God, they hated him, these people who want to use government as their own little tools for personal financial growth. Because Hart knew their games. He knew how they set up innocent-looking schemes that enriched only a handful of their friends or their friends’ businesses. He knew how they masked their sins with words like “business friendly” and “economic development.”

Matt Hart just kept beating them at their own games. So, they had to get rid of him.

Enter: Steve Marshall.

For more than a year now, APR has written story after story, column after column detailing the many, many ways in which Marshall has proven to be completely devoid of basic ethics and willing to do anything to get and keep the job of AG.

Consider this: In a state filled with crooked, spit-on-their-own-mothers-to-get-ahead politicians, Marshall was the only person willing to accept a quid pro quo deal to get the AG gig. Bentley, as APR reported, shopped the deal around, offering the AG’s job to anyone who would agree to investigate Hart and his team.

Marshall was the only one to take it.

And that was just Marshall’s start. Once the campaign for AG heated up, and real challengers entered the race, the panic in Marshall knew no bounds.

The guy took campaign contributions from Hubbard’s lawyers and a guy who bribed Hubbard. While a grand jury in Lee County was still considering charges against the briber. And while a state appeals court was considering Hubbard’s appeal.

Take a moment and think about that.

But Marshall wasn’t nearly done.

When the going got tough in the Republican primary, Marshall accepted more than $700,000 in campaign donations from the Republican Attorneys General Association. He knew the money was illegal, because RAGA allowed its funds to be transferred PAC-to-PAC — a method used to obscure the original source of the funds.

Such transfers are illegal in Alabama, as Marshall knew well. Just before accepting the donations, he had submitted a brief in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court that challenged Alabama’s PAC-to-PAC ban. Marshall argued that the ban was a protection for the people and the only thing preventing a quid pro quo government.

He was right.

But it didn’t matter. Giving back the contributions, as Luther Strange had done a few years earlier, wasn’t an option. Marshall had to win. And he was willing to do anything.

And so, here we are.

This is what it looks like when your AG has been compromised. When he owes his political life to specialized interests of top donors.

Sometimes, those donors want you to turn a blind eye to corruption. Sometimes, they want you to lay back as another entity usurps your power. Sometimes, they want you to change the ethics laws so the dadgum things aren’t so tough. Sometimes, they want you to intervene in a major public corruption investigation. 

And sometimes, they want you to fire that pesky prosecutor who keeps treating the written law like the damn words have meanings.

 

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ALEA sued for suspending licenses of low-income Alabamians for unpaid tickets

Chip Brownlee

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The Southern Poverty Law Center is challenging the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency’s practice of suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid traffic tickets belonging to low-income Alabamians who are unable to pay them.

The SPLC sued ALEA in federal court Monday, calling unconstitutional a law that allows the state to suspend a person’s license without notice and without taking into consideration their ability to pay the sometimes hefty fines. The SPLC says the practice violates the 14th Amendment’s Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses, placing an unfair and detrimental burden on low-income individuals who need transportation to get or keep their jobs.

“For those who can afford to pay, traffic tickets are a mere inconvenience,” the lawsuit reads. “But for those who cannot afford to pay, a traffic ticket can result in the loss of their driver’s license, which frequently has much more serious economic consequences. This is especially true in a state like Alabama where a vast majority of counties are rural and lack accessible public transportation to work, home, education, and medical care.”

The lawsuit says roughly 23,000 Alabama residents are without their licenses because they have been suspended for nonpayment under the rule allowing no warning and no consideration of ability to pay.

“A suspended driver’s license has disastrous implications for individuals living in poverty,” said Micah West, a senior staff attorney at the SPLC. “The U.S. Constitution prohibits the state from suspending a person’s driver’s license without first determining their ability to pay. Through this lawsuit, we hope to end this illegal practice in Alabama.”

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Under an existing rule of criminal procedure — 26.11(i)(3) — Alabama courts can suspend driver’s licenses for nonpayment of traffic tickets. There are no stipulations within the code that require prior notice or an inquiry into the individual’s ability to pay the fines. The SPLC says the rules make an assumption of bad faith because the code also doesn’t require an express finding that the person willfully didn’t pay.

The SPLC argues that the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses require those safeguards for low-income individuals, who are less likely to have the financial means to afford tickets but are nonetheless fined at the same rates.

The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency is being sued because it carries out the courts’ suspensions. ALEA won’t reinstate a driver’s licenses until the individual has paid all outstanding fines and costs to the court.

The lawsuit says the practice leads to other financial and economic impacts on those who have their licenses suspended despite their ability to pay.

“Suspending driver’s licenses for nonpayment makes it more difficult to travel to work and may exacerbate poverty,” SPLC attorneys wrote. “Persons whose licenses are suspended face an unenviable choice: drive illegally and risk further punishment, or stay home and forgo the ability to meet the daily needs of themselves and their families.”

Driving with a suspended license is a misdemeanor that can lead to up to six months in prison and a fine of $500, plus additional court costs, which could be hundreds of more dollars.

The SPLC, which brought the lawsuit on behalf of three Alabamians who had their licenses suspended, is seeking a preliminary injunction, which — if granted by a judge — would halt the practice while the case goes before the court.

The lawsuit asks the federal court to declare the rule unconstitutional and issue an order blocking ALEA from suspending driver’s licenses for nonpayment under the law. The SPLC is also asking the court to reinstate any driver’s license previously suspended solely for nonpayment.

This isn’t the first time the SPLC has challenged a law like this. The pro-bono legal advocacy group has also challenged similar measures in North Carolina and Mississippi. In Mississippi, the SPLC was able to reach a settlement results in the state agreeing to lift failure to pay suspensions for more than 100,000 people.

Other lawsuits have also challenged similar rules in Michigan, California, Virginia and Tennessee.

One of the plaintiffs, Lakendra Cook, found her license was suspended earlier this year after she couldn’t afford to pay two traffic tickets totaling $456 in fines and court costs in Wetumpka Municipal Court, the SPLC said.

According to the SPLC, Cook works the night shift at a warehouse located eight miles from her home. The lawsuit says she barely earns enough money to pay her bills and sometimes has to choose between paying utility bills and paying for groceries for her son and her grandmother.

Because she has to work, take her son to school and get family members to medical appointments, she feels she has no choice but to drive because public transportation in Birmingham is limited, the lawsuit reads.

“Whenever I see a police officer my heart starts pounding and I start calculating in my head whether I will be able to afford bail if I am arrested for driving on a suspended license,” Cook said. “Driving on a suspended license makes me feel like I am a criminal even though my life largely consists of going to work and caring for my family. It is my hope that this lawsuit will result in a clearer path for me and others in a similar situation, to get our driver’s license back. No one should have their license suspended because they don’t have enough money to pay traffic tickets.”

 

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Opportunity for Public Comment on New Statewide Voter ID Rules Ends September 4th

by Lee Hedgepeth Read Time: 3 min
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