By Stephen Cooper
In about two weeks, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley — himself a desperate cartoonish candidate for clemency from the people of Alabama (who he has so profoundly betrayed) — will be the sole arbiter of clemency for Mr. Vernon Madison, an African-American death row inmate; On May 12, Mr. Madison is scheduled to be executed in the death chamber at Holman Prison, in Atmore, Alabama, for his 1985 conviction for the murder of a Mobile police officer.
Think how Vernon Madison’s family feels — themselves innocent of any crime; for Chrissake those folks are just the man’s family! — knowing only one governor in Alabama has ever granted clemency during the entirety of Alabama’s brutal, bloody, and, as history will ultimately record, barbaric experimentation in state-sanctioned death.
Think how Mr. Madison’s family feels knowing that that one and only time a Governor of Alabama decided a human being was worthy of mercy was in 1999, when Governor Forrest Hood “Fob” James, Jr., — on his way out of office — commuted the death sentence of a white woman, Ms. Judith Ann Neelley (condemned for torturing and killing a thirteen-year-old girl).
What minute hope can Mr. Madison’s family muster that Governor Bentley and his staff — which may still include the mercurial and potentially manipulative influence of Ms. Rebekah Caldwell Mason — will pay close attention to the clemency petition Madison’s lawyers will surely file in their last ditch efforts to save their client’s life?
Even if Governor Bentley does studiously consider Mr. Madison’s clemency petition and finds it meritorious, does anyone think he’ll feel compelled to break the mold of 196 years of Alabama history (since statehood) by extending mercy to a poor black man like Madison?
Furthermore, does anyone in their right mind think that even if Governor Bentley scrutinized Mr. Madison’s clemency petition and believed, in his heart of hearts, that clemency was warranted — that he would deign to grant it right now — while he burns under the scorching, unremitting glare of media klieg lights currently feasting over his sickly, overly-sexed in-office shenanigans?
Almost 90 years ago, famed Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in a Supreme Court opinion (Biddle v. Perovich, 274 U.S. 480, 486 (1927)) about the importance of executive clemency, stating it “is not a private act of grace from an individual happening to possess power. It is part of the Constitutional scheme. When granted it is the determination of the ultimate authority that the public welfare will be better served by inflicting less than what the judgment fixed.”
If Holmes were still alive and around to debate the issue, a reasonable question to him from the citizens of Alabama might be: What happens when the “ultimate authority” has demonstrated by his own salacious conduct and bullheaded refusal to resign that he is in no position to rightly judge what best serves the public welfare?
Perhaps an even better query of Holmes and all those who continue to support and promote the death penalty in Alabama (and elsewhere) might be: Doesn’t the screwed up clemency process really alert us – in the same way that a gigantic flashing neon sign might — that the only real “ultimate authority” who should be making decisions about which humans live or die, is God?
About the Author: Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California.
Opinion | Access to voting shouldn’t depend on the color of your skin or your health
It’s no secret that COVID-19 will make holding an election this November challenging. But for people living with diabetes and other chronic health conditions – many of whom are low-income and people of color – it could mean being forced to choose between voting and survival. For Alabama, a state with the highest diabetes rate in the country and where two thirds of all residents have at least one chronic condition, the risk of COVID-19 is credible and dire.
Over the past few months, state officials have created unnecessary barriers that will make it harder and more dangerous for many Alabamians to vote. Not only has the state tried to ban curbside voting, one of the most effective ways for vulnerable voters to safely cast their ballots while avoiding contracting COVID-19, Alabama has also implemented onerous vote by mail requirements that will prevent many already marginalized individuals from participating. Requiring mail in ballots be signed by two adult witnesses or a notary public may look simple at a first glance, but during a pandemic, these measures would force many would-be voters to violate social distancing guidelines and put themselves at risk of bodily harm in order to exercise their right to vote.
This isn’t right, and it gets worse when you consider whom these restrictions will impact the most. Although there’s still much we don’t know about COVID-19, it’s clear that people living with chronic disease are at increased risk. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Americans with diabetes and other related chronic health conditions are killed by the virus twelve times as often as those without. Almost all of the Americans who have died from the virus so far have had at least one underlying condition, and diabetes is the second-most common condition among U.S. COVID-19 patients.
These numbers are particularly grim for Alabamians because the voters considered most vulnerable to the worst of COVID-19’s effects account for nearly half of the electorate in our state. That’s why restrictions on safe voting options could be more harmful here than anywhere else.
Worse still, this ultimatum not only forces voters facing heightened health risks during the pandemic to choose between exercising their civic duty and their personal safety, but also effectively disenfranchises low-income Alabamians and people of color. Nationwide, minority communities are nearly twice as likely to have diabetes as white Americans, and they face higher rates of obesity, heart disease, and cancer compared to white peers. In addition, not only are diabetes rates inversely related to household income, but Alabama is the fifth poorest state in the union. More than 800,000 Alabama residents live in poverty, nearly half of whom are African American – despite Black residents comprising just one quarter of the state’s population. This cruel confluence means that in addition to demonstrating a callous disregard for the health and wellbeing of those most vulnerable to COVID-19’s worst effects, arbitrary voting restrictions will limit the options of Alabama’s low-income and minority citizens writ large.
As a civil rights attorney, I’m troubled by the dilemma Alabamians of color will be facing as they consider whether or not to vote this November. Minority Alabamians are still overcoming generations of systemic barriers to health care, which caused the disproportionate chronic disease rates they see today. Punishing them at the ballot box because of these realities isn’t just deeply unfair – it’s undemocratic.
The good news is that there’s still time to ease these restrictions for those who need our help most during this unprecedented public health crisis. If we are going to hold an election that is safe enough for all to vote irrespective of race, income bracket, or health status, we need action from state leaders now. That’s why I’m calling on Governor Kay Ivey and Secretary of State John Merrill to do everything in their power to ensure that all Alabama residents are able to exercise their civic duty this November without fear for their health.
The ability to vote safely in Alabama shouldn’t depend on the color of your skin or your socioeconomic status – and we can’t let it. Let’s do better.
Kira Fonteneau is a civil and discrimination rights attorney in Birmingham, Alabama. She currently serves as President of the Board of ACLU of Alabama and Chair of the American Diabetes Association’s National Legal Advocacy Subcommittee.
Opinion | On the Nov. 3 ballot, vote “no” on proposed Amendment 1
On Nov. 3, 2020, all Alabama voters should vote “no” on proposed Amendment 1. Vote no on Amendment 1 because it could allow state law changes to disenfranchise citizens whom the Legislature does not want to vote. Because Amendment 1 has no practical purpose and because it opens the door to mischief, all voters are urged to vote no.
Currently, the Alabama Constitution provides that “Every citizen of the United States…” has the right to vote in the county where the voter resides. Amendment 1 would delete the word “every” before citizen and replace it with “only a” citizen.
In Alabama, the only United States citizens who cannot vote today are most citizens who have been convicted of a felony of moral turpitude. These felonies are specifically identified in Ala. Code 17-3-30.1.
Without Amendment 1, the Alabama Constitution now says who can vote: every citizen. If voters approve Amendment 1, the Alabama Constitution would only identify a group who cannot vote. With Amendment 1, we, the citizens of the United States in Alabama, thus would lose the state constitutional protection of our voting rights.
In Alabama, no individual who is not a United States citizens can vote in a governmental election. So, Amendment 1 has no impact on non-citizens in Alabama.
Perhaps the purpose of Amendment 1 could be to drive voter turnout of those who mistakenly fear non-citizens can vote. The only other purpose for Amendment 1 would be allowing future Alabama state legislation to disenfranchise groups of Alabama citizens whom a majority of the legislature does not want to vote.
In 2020, the ballots in Florida and Colorado have similar amendments on the ballots. As in Alabama, Citizens Voters, Inc., claims it is responsible for putting these amendments on the ballots in those states. While Citizens Voters’ name sounds like it is a good nonprofit, as a 501(c)(4), it has secret political donors. One cannot know who funds Citizen Voters and thus who is behind pushing these amendments with more than $8 million in dark money.
According to Citizen Voter’s website, the stated reason for Amendment 1 is that some cities in several other states allow non-citizens to vote. My understanding is that such measures are rare and only apply to voting for local school boards.
And why would a local government’s deciding that non-citizens can vote for local school boards be a state constitutional problem? Isn’t the good government practice to allow local control of local issues? And again, this issue does not even exist in Alabama.
The bigger question, which makes Amendment 1’s danger plain to see, is why eliminate the language protecting “every” citizen’s right to vote? For example, Amendment 1 could have proposed “Every citizen and only a citizen” instead of deleting “every” when adding “only a” citizen. Why not leave the “every” citizen language in the Alabama Constitution?
Amendment 1 could allow Alabama new state legislation to disenfranchise some Alabama citizens. Such a change would probably violate federal law. But Alabama has often had voting laws that violated federal law until a lawsuit forced the state of Alabama not to enforce the illegal state voting law.
The most recent similar law in Alabama might be 2011’s HB56, the anti-immigrant law. Both HB56 and Amendment 1 are Alabama state laws that out-of-state interests pushed on us. And HB56 has been largely blocked by federal courts after expensive lawsuits.
Alabama’s Nov. 3, 2020, ballot will have six constitutional amendments. On almost all ballots, Amendment 1 will be at the bottom right on the first page (front) of the ballot or will be at the top left on the second page (back) of the ballot.
Let’s keep in our state constitution our protection of every voters’ right to vote.
Based on Amendment 1’s having no practical benefit and its opening many opportunities for mischief, all Alabama voters are strongly urged to vote “no” on Amendment 1.
Opinion | Amendment 4 is an opportunity to clean up the Alabama Constitution
The 1901 but current Alabama Constitution has been amended about 950 times, making it by far the world’s longest constitution. The amendments have riddled the Constitution with redundancies while maintaining language and provisions — for example, poll taxes — that reflect the racist intent of those who originally wrote it.
A recompilation will bring order to the amendments and remove obsolete language. While much of this language is no longer valid, the language is still in the document and has been noted and used by other states when competing with Alabama for economic growth opportunities.
The need for recompilation and cleaning of Alabama’s Constitution has been long recognized.
In 2019, the Legislature unanimously adopted legislation, Amendment 4, to provide for its recompilation. Amendment 4 on the Nov. 3 general election ballot will allow the non-partisan Legislative Reference Service to draft a recompiled and cleaned version of the Constitution for submission to the Legislature.
While Amendment 4 prohibits any substantive changes in the Constitution, the LRS will remove duplication, delete no longer legal provisions and racist language, thereby making our Constitution far more easily understood by all Alabama citizens.
Upon approval by the Legislature, the recompiled Constitution will be presented to Alabama voters in November 2022 for ratification.
Amendment 4 authorizes a non-partisan, broadly supported, non-controversial recompilation and much-needed, overdue cleaning up of our Constitution.
On Nov. 3, 2020, vote “Yes” on Amendment 4 so the work can begin.
Opinion | Auburn Student Center named for Harold Melton, first Auburn SGA president of color
The year 1987 was a quiet one for elections across America but not at Auburn. That was the year Harold Melton, a student in international studies and Spanish, launched and won a campaign to become the first African American president of the Auburn Student Government Association, winning with more than 65 percent of the vote.
This was just the first of many important roles Harold Melton would play at Auburn and in an extraordinarily successful legal career in his home state of Georgia, where his colleagues on the Georgia Supreme Court elected him as chief justice.
Last week, the Auburn Board of Trustees unanimously named the Auburn student center for Justice Melton, the first building on campus that honors a person of color. The decision was reached as part of a larger effort to demonstrate Auburn’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.
In June, Auburn named two task forces to study diversity and inclusion issues. We co-chair the task force for the Auburn Board with our work taking place concurrently with that of a campus-based task force organized by President Jay Gogue. Other members of the Board task force are retired Army general Lloyd Austin, bank president Bob Dumas, former principal and educator Sarah B. Newton and Alabama Power executive Quentin P. Riggins.
These groups are embarking on a process that offers all Auburn stakeholders a voice, seeking input from students, faculty, staff, alumni, elected officials and more. It will include a fact-based review of Auburn’s past and present, and we will provide specific recommendations for the future.
We are committed to making real progress based on solid facts. Unlike other universities in the state, Auburn has a presence in all 67 counties through the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. Our review has included not only our campuses in Auburn and Montgomery but all properties across our state. To date, we have found no monuments or statues recognizing the history that has divided our country. We will continue our fact-finding mission with input from the academic and research community.
Our university and leadership are committed to doing the right thing, for the right reasons, at the right time. We believe now is the right time, and we are already seeing results.
In addition to naming the student center for the Honorable Harold Melton, we have taken steps to highlight the significant role played by Harold Franklin, the student who integrated Auburn. We are working to enhance the historical marker that pays tribute to Mr. Franklin, and we are raising its visibility in campus tours as we pay homage to his contributions as our first African American student. Last month, we awarded Mr. Franklin, now 86 and with a Ph.D., a long-overdue master’s degree for the studies he completed at Auburn so many years ago.
We likewise endorsed a student-led initiative creating the National Pan-Hellenic Council Legacy Plaza, which will recognize the contributions of Black Greek organizations and African American culture on our campus.
In the coming months, Auburn men and women will work together to promote inclusion to further enhance our student experience and build on our strength through diversity. The results of this work will be seen and felt throughout the institution in how we recruit our students, provide scholarships and other financial support and ensure a culture of inclusion in all walks of university life.
Our goal is to identify and implement substantive steps that will make a real difference at Auburn, impact our communities and stand the test of time.
Naming the student center for Justice Melton is but one example. In response to this decision, he said, “Auburn University has already given me everything I ever could have hoped for in a university and more. This honor is beyond my furthest imagination.”
Our job as leaders at Auburn is more than honoring the Harold Meltons and Harold Franklins who played a significant role in the history of our university. It is also to create an inclusive environment that serves our student body and to establish a lasting legacy where all members of the Auburn Family reach their fullest potential in their careers and in life.