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Opinion | Montgomery reappoints disgraced judge, needs new leadership

Montgomery, Alabama, USA downtown skyline at dusk.

By Josh Moon

Alabama Political Reporter

Former Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard shouldn’t go to prison.

Nope. His sentence should be commuted and he should be returned to his lofty position atop the Alabama House, because the things he did, while illegal, were not things that he invented and he wasn’t alone in doing those things.

Lots of lawmakers before him were using their offices for personal gain. Lots of lawmakers were involved in the schemes, or schemes very similar, for which Hubbard was convicted of 12 felonies.

So, set the man free and let him reign over the Legislature once again.

That’s stupid, right?

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No one believes that the above argument — that others were doing it, so what’s the big deal? — is an argument that holds any real weight with adults, right? It’s an elementary schooler’s argument, right?

Well, apparently y’all haven’t met the Montgomery City Council and Mayor Todd Strange.

Because if their friends were jumping off bridges, they would be right with them.

On Tuesday, despite vocal disagreement from numerous citizens — and not a single citizen speaking in favor of it — the council accepted the mayor’s reappointment of Judge Lester Hayes to the Montgomery Municipal Court.

If you’re unfamiliar with Hayes, you should be aware that he’s quite unique in Alabama, a state that goes to great lengths to never, ever punish or even investigate most judges. Hayes was not only investigated, he was removed from the bench in 2016.

That decision by the Judicial Inquiry Commission (JIC) followed a number of complaints filed against him over his continued jailing of indigent defendants, and also because of his use of a private probation company contracted with the City of Montgomery to extract pennies from the penniless.

The JIC called the findings against Hayes — that he violated TEN! different canons of judicial ethics — “very troubling” and “serious.”

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And they were.

Because in addition to violating those canons, Hayes also blatantly violated Alabama law when he locked up poor people without offering them a chance to explain their situation or present evidence of indigency.

And he continued to do this, over and over, despite complaints from attorneys in town, despite threats of lawsuits from the Southern Poverty Law Center, despite the pleas of poor people and despite his responsibility to know and uphold the laws of this state.

And Hayes stopped this practice, not out of some deep concern for the people of Montgomery or out of a crisis of conscience, but because he and the city courts were sued on three separate occasions in federal court.

And to prove there was zero remorse on his part, Hayes illegally took a legal job with the City of Montgomery and was later forced by the JIC to repay the city his salary.  

But on Tuesday, none of that mattered to the mayor and seven of the Montgomery City Council members who voted to reappoint Hayes to the bench. (Only councilman Tracy Larkin voted against Hayes.)

Their childlike reasoning: Hayes wasn’t the only judge to lock up poor people, and he didn’t start the practice.

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For normal adults, such a statement would be the start of a process to remove all of the judges who violated the laws so blatantly. Because while the council spoke at great length of how such practices were common in Alabama and in other cities, it is more common that such practices are uncommon.

Thousands of American cities have managed to conduct business without operating debtors’ prisons. They either never had them, recognizing their cruelty and uselessness, or they voluntarily stopped them without court intervention.

But Montgomery is apparently led by a different group of people.

That group was unconcerned that Hayes had admitted in legal filings to treating the citizens that the council are supposed to represent unfairly and cruelly. That group of city leaders apparently believe it’s OK if judges get caught up in an illegal conspiracy to improperly jail citizens. That leadership group accepted a juvenile excuse and ignored their constituents.

So maybe Les Hayes isn’t the real problem here.

Maybe Montgomery needs new leadership.

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Written By

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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