By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
What are we to make of the fact that Alabama ranks in the top ten for being one of the most religious states, as well as being near the top in public corruption?
Alabama State government is like a sanctuary city for moral turpitude, a safe haven where the guilty are free from punishment; as long as you are in public office.
Mike Hubbard has been indicted on 23 felony counts of public corruption, but he still sits as Speaker of the House.
Sen. Tom Whatley was arrested after Auburn police witnessed him beating his girlfriend, but the charges were dropped.
Rep. Barry Moore was reelected after being charged with lying to a Grand Jury. He was later acquitted.
Sen. Cam Ward was arrested for a DUI, even admitting that he was over double the legal alcohol limit in the middle of the day, and yet, he will keep all of his committee chairmanships.
This is not to say that there should not be forgiveness, or that an appearance of wrong doing should always be harshly punished. But, if there are no negative consequences for one class and sometimes harsh consequences for another, it is a threat to everyone’s liberty and equality.
Today, our State officials are treated like little princes, especially if they are Republican.
Politicians ask for us to give them the power to represent us. They asked that we trust them to make decisions that affect our money, property, our liberty and happiness.
All members of the legislature, and all officers, executive and judicial make they following oath, “I, …, solemnly swear (or affirm, as the case may be) that I will support the Constitution of the United States, and the Constitution of the State of Alabama, so long as I continue a citizen thereof; and that I will faithfully and honestly discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter, to the best of my ability. So help me God.”
In exchange for the authority to represent us in all matters before our government they have promised to act responsibly on our behalf, following the Constitution of the United States, and the Constitution of the State of Alabama, to the best of their ability. When they fall short we have a right to hold them accountable to a higher standard because they have broken trust with us. But this is not the case with this current political class. There is a lack honor among some of our lawmakers, yet this is an especially vital element for those in public service.
Our country was founded by men who deemed honor a virtue, which meant freedom from corruption, and a devotion to public service. The Declaration of Independence concludes with these words: “We pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”
They did not say their lives or fortunes were sacred, only their honor.
The West Point Cadet Honor Code is a simple, but powerful:
“A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.”
It would seem that our State government no longer follows a code of honor. And, if they still have one, it’s safe to assume that they do not understand what a code of honor means. This atmosphere, which is so lacking in personal integrity, is what has allowed public corruption to be tolerated and to thrive.
Former Federal Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has been quoted as saying,
“Undoubtedly, the most harmful consequence of endemic, public corruption in a community, is the apathy that it engenders – the culture of acceptance.”
Recently, Hubbard’s legal team signaled it will challenge the constitutionality of the State’s ethics laws, championed not only by Hubbard, but the entire Republican supermajority, and its party heads.
After learning that Hubbard will seek to have these ethics laws declared unconstitutional, I reached out to a number of lawmakers, and asked this question:
“Do you think the ethics laws passed in the 2010 Special Session were unconstitutional? Of those who replied, two answers distill the gamut of responses.
Sen. Jim McClendon (R-Springville), who, as a State Representative in 2010, helped shepherd the ethics laws through the Special Session, wrote in his reply, “For the record: I believe the procedure was exactly as prescribed by the Rules, and every bill will pass/survive judicial muster.”
Sen. Arthur Orr (R-Decatur), who has taken up the cause of ethics, and campaign finance reform, would say the following: “We have to see the specific arguments being made as to unconstitutionality.”
In 2004, the National Bureau of Economic Research commissioned studies on public corruption. In a working paper on Corruption in America, Edward L. Glaeser and Raven E. Saks found, using empirical data that, “More educated states, and to a less degree, richer states, have less corruption.” Looking at federal corruption convictions they found, “There is no empirical link between bigger government, or more regulation, and more corruption.”
Perhaps this is a chicken-and-egg situation. Alabama ranks high in poverty, and low in education. But, is this a result of public corruption, and not why corruption is rampant and tolerated?
Republicans who promised to clean-up the culture of corruption in Montgomery, now ignore it because members of their team are the ones accused of breaking the law. This is not simply apathy or the culture of acceptance, it is a willful disregard of facts in favor of faction.
Those who put the Republican Party before principle don’t deserve the badge of Republican, or to be labeled principled.
Perhaps, in their defense, they just do not understand what public corruption actually is?
Then, let me speak plainly: public corruption is when a public official breaks the rules.
If the rules says you can’t be paid to place 23 words in the Medicaid budget, and that you can’t vote on bills that personally profit you. When that occurs, the rules have been broken. When the perpetrator of such an act is indicted, it’s not political, they broke the rules. If the rules say you can’t beat your partner, drink and drive, or except lavish perks from lobbyists, then, when you break those rules, there should be consequence.
Where is the public shame that springs from personal honor?
In Montgomery, the rules are seen as malleable, honor subjugated to gain. In the Capitol, rules are easily twisted to gain advantage or to please a particular patron. The rules are also bent to control and consolidate power. We see this all too often, but frequency of abuse doesn’t make it right or acceptable.
Politicians should be held to a higher standard, because they have been elected to represent us. When they act, they act in our name.
Many in our State government proudly proclaim their Christian faith, and we have thousands of laws to make us keep the Ten Commandments. However, when is comes to our politicos, we offer a sanctuary for moral failings.
Of all the aforementioned politicos, only Ward has had the personal integrity to acknowledge his transgression and say he was sorry.
The rest… silence speaks of their honor.
Opinion | Clorox, anyone?
There is no comprehensive plan on how to hold the upcoming legislative session safely — not even a rudimentary one.
In less than 100 days, the state Legislature will return to Montgomery for the 2021 Legislative Session. As of now, there is no comprehensive plan on how to hold the session safely — not even a rudimentary one.
But perhaps there is a reason to keep the statehouse shuttered as the Legislature seems to have forgotten the governing principles that the nation was built upon, and (hint, hint) it was never a slogan.
One individual at the Statehouse said that there would be a vaccine by February, so why worry about holding Session as usual. Perhaps this individual also believes that a disinfectant cure or a UV light remedy is right around the corner. News flash, as of press time, intravenous Clorox and lightbulb suppositories are still in phase one trials.
Pandemic humor aside, the surprising thing would be if the Legislature actually had a plan at all.
There have been rumors of a plan, even mentions of one, too, but nothing that would allow lawmakers, lobbyists and the public to realistically gather to conduct the peoples’ business in a relatively COVID-free environment.
We all want a miracle, but miracles are outside legislative purview, and while prayer is needed at the Statehouse, so is commonsense and a plan.
One plan in consideration is to limit the number of people who can enter the building. That’s a bad idea because the public has a right to witness government action and advocate for causes.
At the end of the truncated 2020 session, the Legislature curtailed the number of people in the Statehouse, which violates the law and good government spirit.
Lawmakers come to Montgomery to do the peoples’ business — at least that’s what they say at campaign events and pancake breakfasts. Of course, they don’t really conduct the people’s business in Montgomery. That’s just a figure of speech.
Legislators represent the people when they are running for office or giving chats at Rotary, but when most — not all — enter the Statehouse, they work for special interests.
Yes, some do care, and all are convinced they are doing a great job, but just like the plan to open the Statehouse safely on Feb. 3, it’s sadly an absurd pretense.
The majority of the Legislature consists of Republicans, who used to have a firm sense of what the party represented. While I hate to offend my many friends, the current party couldn’t find the most defining principles of traditional governance in our nation if you gave them a GPS and a flashlight.
Let me humbly run down a short list of things that should matter in no particular order.
For the list, I will turn to the 2006 book American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia: “Classical liberalism is the term used to designate the ideology advocating private property, an unhampered market economy, the rule of law, constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and the press, and international peace based on free trade.”
Classical liberalism has nothing to do with modern liberalism and everything to do with our Republic’s founding. Classical liberalism underpins the Constitution’s foundation, Federalist Papers and the vast majority of the founding generation’s ideology, which created our nation’s governing structure.
Private property rights are fundamental to what Jefferson called the pursuit of happiness.
And guess what is an individual’s most precious piece of property? Their person. Yes, a person’s body and mind are an individual’s greatest possession. A person’s right to live freely with only a minimum amount of government intrusion is essential to happiness. The government’s job is not to tell us how to live, rather keep others from harming us, killing us or taking our stuff.
Every year Montgomery seems intent on an ever-expanding agenda to meddle in people’s private lives.
Real estate and other property is significant but can’t be thoroughly enjoyed if we are dead or in chains designed by the good intentions of the Legislature. Lawmakers are not to be the central planning committee for the soul.
The government should promote a relatively unhampered market economy. Tariffs anyone? Trade wars? No one wins a trade war. Everyone loses. Winning simply means the other side lost more or gives up. It’s like a bar fight. Nobody wins it because everyone gets beaten up — but one got it worse.
How about the rule of law? I hear it talked about a lot, but the law must be just for everyone. If the law is applied unequally, is it really the law?
We hear a lot about Second Amendment rights as if that’s the big one. But what about freedom of the press? Is that less important? As the nation’s second president John Adams said, “Without the pen of Paine, the sword of Washington would have been wielded in vain.”
The press is not the enemy of the people. Is there bias? Sometimes. Is there poor reporting? On occasion. But the real enemy are the politicians who defame or attempt to delegitimize the media for not supporting their political agenda. An AR-15 can be coercive but have a free county without a free press in impossible.
Freedom of religion is also paramount to our nation’s principles as free people have a right to worship without government interference or mandate. But believe me, some religious leaders would see a government-imposed religion as long as it’s the one they like. I often wonder, does religion require a strong man or strong faith? Today it’s hard to tell. Like all rights, if you take away the freedom to worship or not, and the whole system of liberty fails.
Last but not least, international peace based on free trade: If a nation is making money by trading with another country, it doesn’t have a good reason to bomb it. Likewise, the bounds of capital are generally stronger than political ideology. Money may not make the world go ’round, but a lack of it sure can unleash terrible conflict.
After this exercise in futility, I’ve decided I’m glad the Legislature doesn’t have a plan to open the 2021 session. Why bother? Because the very ideals that genuinely make life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness a reality are the ones at greatest risk of being trampled upon by the Legislature.
Opinion | Prisons, justice reform and the art of the possible
Politics is bound by the art of what’s possible. It is also true that those who never dare the impossible rarely achieve even the possible.
For years, prison reform advocates, media outlets and even a few public officials have called for new correctional facilities to address Alabama’s dangerously overcrowded prisons.
Now that it’s happening, some aren’t happy with how Gov. Kay Ivey is addressing the problem.
Is the Ivey Administration’s plan perfect? No. But building new facilities along with criminal justice reform — while all imperfect — is the last best hope to correct generations of cruel treatment, endangered correctional officers and corrupt practices.
German chancellor and statesman Otto von Bismarck said “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best,” this is the state of a workable solution to Alabama’s prison needs and criminal justice reform.
Yet, there is a concerted effort underway to stop the Ivey Administration from acquiring three new men’s prisons under a build-lease agreement.
Some lawmakers want another crack at financing additional facilities through a bond issue, and others want more say in the process. Still, the fact is that Ivey’s actions are the result of decades of legislative indifference and inaction to adequately address the appalling conditions at Alabama’s correctional facilities.
Even some advocates are working against the prison plan and while their intentions may be good it seem to their hand wringing is almost as disingenuous as lawmakers whining.
What’s worse are those who spread disinformation to discredit process.
Many good people have worked hard to bring about an end to the state’s barbaric prison system and unfair justice, but lately it seems there is an outright movement to derail much needed change— simply because it’s not enough. As the saying goes, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
There have been so many false claims and sly manipulations of facts about the prison plan as to make even a hardened journalist want to cry “fake news.”
But as for Ivey, frankly, my dears, I don’t think she gives a damn.
Here’s the hard truth. The Ivey Administration is building three new men’s prisons, and nothing will stop it. The fact is that three prisons are not enough; the administration should move forward to build a new women’s facility as soon as practicable.
Politics is bound by the art of what’s possible. It is also true that those who never dare the impossible rarely achieve even the possible.
Failing to recognize when the once impossible is coming to fruition is a sad reality. Still, in politics, as in life, good things happen while most people are navel-gazing or complaining.
Having visited three state prisons, St. Clair, Elmore, and Tutwiler, I can say without a doubt, the conditions in those places are a living hell.
A report from the U.S. Department of Justice released in April 2019, found “reasonable cause to believe that Alabama fails to provide constitutionally adequate conditions and that prisoners experience serious harm, including deadly harm, as a result.”
DOJ’s investigation revealed that prisoners were susceptible to “an enormous breath” of sexual abuse and assault but other types of violence as well, including gruesome murder and beatings that went without intervention.
When the state incarcerates a criminal, it assumes custodial care for that individual. No matter how heinous the crime or foul the person, the state has an obligation to feed, clothe, house and provide essential human services for their care and welfare. Another element is often overlooked; when a person is committed to prison, they lose their freedom, not their humanity. Therefore, under the law, they cannot be subject to cruel and unusual punishment.
Building three new men’s prisons is just the start; it must be accompanied by criminal justice reform.
“We are able to have a serious discussion about prison reform in Alabama because we have a governor who is serious about putting solutions into place,” Ivey’s press secretary Gina Maiola recently told APR. “Prison infrastructure is a key part of the equation, but criminal justice reform is also needed,” Maiola said.
The Study Group entered its mission with one pressing question; “What policies and programs can the State of Alabama implement to ensure the long-term sustainability of our prison system without jeopardizing public safety?” according to Supernumerary Associate Supreme Court Justice Champ Lyons, Jr., who led the effort.
In a letter to Ivey on the Study Groups finding, Lyons wrote [T]he challenges facing our prison system are exceedingly complex—ranging from the elimination of contraband weapons and drugs to the recruitment, retention, and training of correctional staff to the size of the inmate population and to the physical condition of an aging and far-flung prison infrastructure.” He further wrote, “But having thought through many of these issues with my Study Group colleagues, especially our legislative members, I can report to you that some meaningful answers to this question are not just possible; they are within our grasp.”
Prisons without justice reform is a hollow victory, and the Ivey Administration is committed to bringing about reasonable reforms.
“Prison infrastructure is a key part of the equation,” said Maiola, “but criminal justice reform is also needed.”
The issues facing Alabama’s prisons and criminal justice system are complex, and generations in the making; therefore, arriving at a universally acceptable solution is not imaginable for the moment if ever. But what once seemed impossible is soon to be realized.
No one gets everything they want, but it’s a great step toward getting what is needed simply because it’s possible.
Opinion | Amendment 4: Stairway to heaven or highway to hell?
If you wouldn’t trust that august body to manage your checkbook, reconfigure your last will and testament, or redefine the terms of your car loan, then you should vote no.
Amendment 4 will appear on the Nov. 3 general election ballot asking the voters to approve a constitutional amendment to remove racist language from the 1901 Constitution and recompile other sections for content and clarity.
If you trust state lawmakers to “recompile” the state’s governing document, then vote yes.
If, however, you wouldn’t trust that august body to manage your checkbook, reconfigure your last will and testament, or redefine the terms of your car loan, then you should vote no.
The question is straightforward. Do you trust this Legislature with this important task?
The ballot measures lead sponsors were Sen. Rodger Smitherman and Rep. Merika Coleman, both Black Democrats, and it was passed with an overwhelming majority in both the House and Senate. This would seem to give legitimacy to the claim that at its heart, this is a referendum to remove racist language from the state’s Constitution.
However, Amendment 4 is a Trojan horse to allow the state Legislature to manipulate the state’s Constitution using past racism as cover. (Let’s not forget the recent racially charged monuments preservation act.)
This Amendment isn’t a benign effort to cleaning up the Constitution; it is a way for lawyers, lobbyists and lawmakers to rewrite the Constitution using sleight-of-hand.
After speaking about the need to eliminate racist words in the Constitution, Coleman actually points to the real reason the Republican supermajority supported the measure.
“Coleman said it’s not just a social issue,” according to reporting by Mary Sell. “But an economic development issue ‘for those of us who want to bring industry, new ideas, new technology, new research, new employees that are diverse into the state of Alabama.'”
The driving force behind the so-called recompilation is mostly about money, bringing more in and for the government to spend it more easily.
Eradicating racism from the state’s Constitution is a noble effort, but not if it opens the flood gates to more mischief.
In 2012, the Legislature offered a more narrow amendment which claimed to remove racist language from the Constitution only to have it revealed that it also eliminated a child’s right to a state-provided public education.
About that Amendment, also known as Amendment 4, then-Sen. Hank Sanders wrote, ”It proposes to remove racist provisions from the Alabama Constitution that have no real legal impact.”
The indent of the 2012 measure was to do away with a child’s right to public education; removing racist language was simply bait for the unaware.
The same is true of the current Amendment 4 because the offensive words have no bearing on how the state is governed.
The U.S. Constitution contains racist language and holds racist ideals, but they no longer have the weight of law.
“Consider the 14th Amendment. No part of the Constitution speaks more forcefully to the power of law to transform social relations,” notes Richard Albert, a constitutional law professor at The University of Texas at Austin. “It guarantees that no state shall ‘deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.’ And yet the Constitution still today counts a slave as ‘three-fifths’ of a person.”
“The First Congress debated whether a constitutional amendment should entail changes to the original text but ultimately chose to record changes in the higher law as sequential amendments to the end of the document,” according to Albert.
The founders determined it was best to leave offense clauses in the text and add amendments to the end; Alabama has followed their example.
Hurtful words matter and should be condemned but protecting citizens from a Legislature who would exploit constitutional change for their own benefit is also dangerous.
Removing racist language from the state’s constitution is morally right, but not if it lets deceptive lawmakers legalize unethical conduct. The state shouldn’t exchange one wrong for another.
Those who support Amendment 4 say that it will not change the Constitution; just cleans it up by removing all racist language; deleting duplicative and repealed provisions; consolidating provisions regarding economic development; and arranging all local amendments by county of application. And nothing in the amendment permits more money to be spent on economic development than is currently available. Those who want to foster greater commercial growth believe that condensing and clarifying sections of the Constitution will help define Alabama as a more business-friendly state.
However, anyone with a rudimentary understanding of textural construct knows that merely moving a comma can dramatically change a sentence’s meaning. Consider the many tricks which can occur with a cut and paste constitution.
For example, “I say to you today, I’m going to give you a million dollars.” That statement means at some point in the future, I’ll give you the money. But, “I say to you, today I’m going to give you a million dollars.” That means you’re going to get cash now. One little comma makes a lot of difference.
Alabama’s 1901 Constitution is some 800 pages long. How many lawmakers have read it; how many will read the “recompiled” Constitution? Most? Like none.
The Legislature asks us to suspend disbelief, pretending that nothing nefarious is going on and that they are sincere, and their intentions are good.
Sincerity is no guarantee of honesty, and as for good intentions, we all know where that leads.
Rock songs say there is a stairway to heaven and a highway to hell. Obviously, rockers understand the traffic patterns better than our lawmakers.
Amendment 4 is a fraud that will weaken the state and lead to further legalized corruption.
The ballot measure is in fact about money and power under the guise of racial equity.
Opinion | Gov. Kay Ivey didn’t cave
Ivey stood her ground on Wednesday, refusing to cave to those who want to end the mask order.
Gov. Kay Ivey extended the statewide mandatory mask ordinance on Wednesday despite pressure from her party’s right-wing. Nationally and here in Alabama, many Republicans have complained that any restrictions on their behavior during the COVID-19 outbreak is a violation of their individual liberty.
Ivey stood her ground on Wednesday, refusing to cave to those who want to end the mask order. For most of the COVID-19 pandemic here in the state, Ivey has followed health experts’ advice rather than politicos. Standing up to the Republican Party’s right-wing is not an easy task even in the best of times, but these days, with the party more radicalized than ever, Ivey is taking a huge political risk.
But like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, she hasn’t bowed, she hasn’t bent, and she hasn’t burned.
These are divisive times when even the best of people seem to be at war over the nation’s direction.
“Give me liberty or give me death” may have been a great rallying cry in 1776; it’s less persuasive as a public health policy.
Lately, some Alabama conservatives sound more like the John Birch Society members than the Republican Party of just a few years ago.
“In the name of fighting the coronavirus, more and more state governors are ruling by decree, curtailing freedoms and ordering residents to stay at home,” says the Birch website.
The Republican Party in the 1960s deemed Birchers dangerous and severed ties with the group. But like 60s racism, Red-baiting and a fear that socialist are lurking behind every corner, all that’s old is new again.
Not surprisingly, former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore is one of the leading voices in the fight to discredit the Ivey administration’s COVID orders.
Senate President Pro Tem Republican Del Marsh is part of the anti-masker movement and has suggested he’d like to see more people become infected to build the state’s overall immunity to the virus.
Marsh is certainly not alone; there is a motivated mop of miscreants who sees any restriction as an affront to them doing anything they please. Perhaps they can refuse to wear a seatbelt or maybe light up a cigar the next time they are dinning at the county club and show some real radical resistance.
The truth is many of those who condemn masks as an intrusion on personal freedom would happily compel their fellow citizens to pray at school and stand for the national anthem. They are more than willing to regulate liberties when it contradicts their opinion of what is good and wholesome. But heaven forbid they wear a mask to protect others—that is one regulation too far.
Like a pubescent boy, they live in a fantasy world; without consequences.
Anti-maskers are given to a form of herd mentality, which is part of a broader movement to discredit science for political purposes.
Perhaps the most critical job of a governor or lawmaker is the heath and safety of the public.
Masks protect others more than the wearer, and where the “Golden rule” should apply, it is trampled on just like Jesus’ admonition to love our neighbors as ourselves.
But I suspect that many of those who continuously espouse conspiracies, apocalyptic nightmares, and end time prophecies actually don’t like themselves very much and therefore don’t really care about the shared responsibilities we have toward others.
Writing for Business Insider, George Pearkes explains the four different types of liberty, according to David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed to explain mandatory mask orders.
“Efforts to require masks are a straightforward expression of ordered liberty,” writes Pearkes. “The concept of ordered liberty argues that without structure and a set of rules which are enforced for the common good, society would devolve into chaos.” He further concludes that “Mask orders are quite literally saving society from itself, so that we can be more free than we would if COVID spread even further and faster.”
Ordered liberty can be seen at the heart of Ivey’s policies during the coronavirus plague.
But for anti-maskers, “Live Free or Die” means they are free to do what they want, even if it kills you.
Ivey is putting people ahead of politics. We should wish more would follow her example.