INSIDE THE STATEHOUSE
by Steve Flowers
A good many of the news stories that were the most noteworthy events of 2015 will continue into this new year of 2016 and may repeat as the major headlines of this year.
Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard will go on trial in his home of Lee County in early spring. Hubbard, the Republican Speaker, is the architect and leader of the GOP takeover of the Alabama House. Ironically, one of the cornerstone issues heralded by Hubbard in his coup was ethics reform. Interestingly, one of the most incriminating emails revealed during discovery was one in which Hubbard essentially asked his buddy, former Gov. Bob Riley, why in the world did we pass that ethics law?
Hubbard has been indicted on 23 felony counts of ethics law violations. These ethics canons were passed and heralded by Hubbard and his leadership team in the House, which has remained loyal to Hubbard throughout the course of his trial. Hubbard was indicted in 2014. The GOP dominated House reelected him Speaker in January 2015 as the new quadrennium began. Their justification was that in America you are innocent until proven guilty.
During 2015 there were ongoing legal battles between the state prosecutors and Hubbard’s attorneys. These skirmishes filled the news periodically throughout the year. The case continuation seemed to cause some disintegration of Hubbard’s political hold on the House. In addition, the protracted budget fight that lasted most of 2015 created tension and discord.
During the last Special Session, while dealing with the General Fund Budget, some of the GOP backbenchers challenged Hubbard and some actually called for his resignation. Rep. Phil Williams of Huntsville actually launched a campaign to run against Hubbard as Speaker.
Hubbard’s trial is set to begin in late March so the Speaker will be absent from the presiding post for most of the Regular Session while attending his trial. If he is convicted on any of the 23 counts, not only will he have to vacate the Speakership but he will also be forced to leave the House entirely. Hubbard’s successor would be elected among the House of Representatives. Regardless of the outcome this story portends to be one of the leading news stories of 2016.
Speaking of the legislature, an issue that arose in 2015 and should be resolved this year has strangely gone completely under the radar screen. Alabama’s House and Senate district lines, which were drawn and adopted in 2013, are up in the air. Our current legislature was elected in 2014 under these lines. When drawing the lines, the Legislative Reapportionment Committee meticulously complied with every aspect of the existing Voting Rights Laws and judicial holdings. Minority districts were preserved and even enhanced. Under Alabama’s 2014 redistricting the state’s racial compliance, as called for under the Voting Rights Act, is one of the fairest in the nation.
It was thought by most observers that a perfunctory appeal of the lines by the Alabama Legislative Black Caucus and the Alabama Democratic Conference was nothing more than a Hail Mary. Indeed, a three judge federal panel approved the state’s plan. However, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case on appeal and in a surprise 5-4 decision in March remanded the case back to the three judge panel to reconsider.
Justice Stephen Breyer, in writing for the majority of the Supreme Court, said the judges should look at the individual districts to determine whether they were racially gerrymandered. The Supreme Court is plowing new ground in Alabama and in other southern states by saying that black voters were “packed and stacked” in majority-minority districts stifling their power in the legislative process.
In August, the panel asked the plaintiffs to submit maps to comply with the ambiguous Supreme Court ruling. They did so in September. The three judge federal panel could rule on the maps at any time. Even though most of the changes suggested by the plaintiffs are minor and subtle and do not affect most existing lines, the federal courts could very well call for new legislative elections this year. If that happens it would be as big a story as the Hubbard trial.
See you next week.
Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. Steve may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.