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Marshall files motion to protect Birmingham Confederate monument after court ruling

Chip Brownlee | The Trace

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Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall has asked the Jefferson County Circuit Court to temporarily delay a judge’s decision striking down Alabama’s 2017 monument protection act.

If Marshall’s Jan. 25 request for a stay is granted, the law and its legal protections for a Confederate monument in Birmingham will remain in place until the court case travels through the appeals process.

The request comes after Jefferson County Circuit Judge Michael Graffeo ruled on Jan. 14 shortly before his retirement this month that the law — which affords protections to monuments more than 40 years old — violated the city’s rights.

Marshall sued the city in August 2017 after officials placed plywood boards around a Confederate monument in Birmingham’s Linn Park. His lawsuit argued that the make-shift plywood wall violated the law’s provisions that prohibit the “altering” of historic monuments.

The 52-foot obelisk monument to Confederate Soldiers and Sailors was built in 1905, well within the law’s protections. The monument has been a flashpoint in Alabama for the broader debate over what to do with monuments to Confederate figures across the country.

Following the 2015 mass shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church, an African-American church in Charleston, activists began calling for the monument to be removed. The Birmingham Park and Recreation Board voted to relocate the monument.

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Graffeo has been involved with the legal battle over the monument since 2015. After the board’s vote, he dismissed a lawsuit from a group called “Save our South” that sought a restraining order to prevent the board from removing the memorial.

The next year, Sen. Gerald Allen, R-Tuscaloosa, filed a bill to protect monuments like the one in Linn Park. It ended up stalling in that session, but it came back in 2017 and passed the Legislature. Gov. Kay Ivey signed it into law in May 2017.

Months later, then-Mayor William Bell ordered the monument covered with plywood and walled off until it could be removed. Bell’s order followed the August 2017 Charlottesville riots, which started as a rally against the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in the Virginia city.

The rally quickly became a white nationalist riot and ended with the death of a counter-protester, 32-year-old Heather Heyer, sparking more nationwide debate over Confederate monuments.

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Marshall and his office filed the lawsuit against the city later that month.

Graffeo’s ruling this month held that the law restricts the right of the citizens of Birmingham to speak collectively through their city government and control what goes in their parks.

“Just as the state could not force any particular citizen to post a pro-Confederacy sign in his or her front lawn, so too can the state not commandeer the city’s property for the state’s preferred message,” Graffeo wrote in his order. “That the act compels the city to express the state’s preferred message does not transform the message into the state’s speech.”

Graffeo also found the law to violate the city’s right to due process.

“Under the act, there is no process at all — no notice and no hearing,” Graffeo wrote. “According to the state, it may decide what the city can and cannot do with its own property, Linn Park and the statuary inside it. There is no provision in the act for the city or its citizens to be heard concerning the use of Linn Park and the monument.”

Proponents of the law have argued that municipalities are extensions of the state and that the state has the authority to control city actions. Marshall said in a statement that the judge wrongfully found the city to have rights to free speech.

“We believe the Court’s decision against the Memorial Preservation Act will be overturned due to the fact that it incorrectly assigns the right of free speech to a government subdivision (the City of Birmingham),” Marshall said.

Marshall has filed an appeal of the court ruling with the Supreme Court of Alabama.

The attorney general’s stay request seeks to preserve the status quo condition of the Confederate monument in Linn Park pending the appeal.

The plywood screen around the monument is still in place without touching or connecting to the monument, which is still in the same location as it has been since 1905.

Some have called for Mayor Randall Woodfin to take advantage of the court’s decision and swiftly remove the monument, but the ruling has an automatic 30-day stay, preventing any action until at least mid-February.

“This action should be stayed because if the Court’s judgment leads the City or others to believe it is legal to alter or destroy monuments before the Supreme Court of Alabama has the opportunity to address this case, the State may suffer irreparable harm,” the state wrote in its motion. “Historical monuments and buildings could be destroyed or altered in such a way that they cannot be rebuilt.”

After the stay expires next month, the city could take action to remove the monument should no additional stay be granted.

 

Chip Brownlee is a former political reporter, online content manager and webmaster at the Alabama Political Reporter. He is now a reporter at The Trace, a non-profit newsroom covering guns in America.

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Prosecution accepts misdemeanor plea in high-profile environmental administrator’s case 

The plea deal came shortly before Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Stephen C. Wallace was to hear arguments on selective and vindictive prosecution.

Bill Britt

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Almost two years ago, Trump administration EPA Region 4 Administrator Onis “Trey” Glenn III was charged with more than a dozen state felony ethics violations. On Monday, he pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor charges after reaching a plea agreement with the prosecution.

The plea deal came shortly before Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Stephen C. Wallace was to hear arguments on selective and vindictive prosecution.

According to a statement from the Ethics Commission at the time, Glenn, along with former Alabama Environmental Management Commissioner Scott Phillips, was charged after a Jefferson County grand jury returned indictments against the two on Nov. 9, 2018, according to a statement from the Ethics Commission.

Rather than moving forward with the case, prosecutors dropped the felony charges against Glenn. They opted to reach an agreement to accept a plea on three counts of “unintentional” violations of the ethics code. Glenn received a two-year suspended sentence for his actions.

“In the interest of efficiency, we were pleased to take advantage of the opportunity to resolve this matter,” Glenn’s attorney Matt Hart told APR when reached for comment. “My client pleaded to unintentional, misdemeanor violations of the ethics law, and the matter is concluded.”

Questions surround the prosecution’s decision to settle the case for a confession to minor offensives in such a high profile case. Still, from the beginning, the case was marred by allegations that the Alabama Ethics Commission’s lawyers had mishandled the investigation and indictments.

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Indictments against Glenn and Phillips were reported by AL.com even before the pair was arrested or served with the indictments. In AL.com’s report, Ethics Commission Executive Director Tom Albritton said that then-Jefferson County District Attorney Mike Anderton had requested the Ethics Commission help indict the two men.

As first reported by APR, shortly after Glenn and Phillips’ indictments, Albritton and his team’s actions raised serious questions about the process that led to charges against the two men. APR reported that Albritton and Ethics Commission lawyer Cynthia Propst Raulston approached Anderton, and he did not request help with the case from the commission, as was reported in AL.com.

Later, APR confirmed that the Ethics Commission approached Anderton, contradicting Albritton’s public statement. In a sworn statement given on Feb. 9, 2019, Anderton said it was Ethics Commission lawyers who approached him, as first reported by APR in November of last year.

According to Anderton, in the fall of 2018, Propst Raulston approached him because “she had a case she wanted to present to the Jefferson County Grand Jury.”

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He further states, “I told Ms. Raulston that I would facilitate her appearance before the grand jury but that my office did not have the resources to support her case. I also told her that she would have to prosecute the case herself.”

These and other aberrations came into sharper focus when Hart — the state’s most famous prosecutor of his generation turned defense attorney — began diving into the particulars of the prosecution’s case.

Glenn’s defense argued from the start that procedural process was circumvented when Albritton and Propst Raulston took the complaint directly to a grand jury rather than the Ethics Commission as prescribed by the Legislature.

An ethics commissioner told APR privately that the commission was never informed about a complaint against the two men, nor was the investigation.

According to internal sources, actions taken by Albritton and Propst Raulston created turmoil at the commission and raised a question about who would prosecute the case on the state’s behalf.

During the process, Albritton, Propst Raulston, and other attorneys for the commission asked the attorney general’s office to take over the case; however, according to sources within the office, the AG turned them down after a review found “statutory problems” with how the case against Glenn and Phillips was handled.

In a motion to dismiss, the defense said, “In sum, the Ethics Commission Staff trampled Mr. Glenn’s rights in obtaining the indictment without giving him his required notice and an opportunity to be heard as required by the Alabama Ethics Act, and then after indictment denied him notice as guaranteed by the Grand Jury Secrecy Act and failed to protect his presumption of innocence as required by the Rules of Professional Conduct.”

While not explicitly noted in the motion to dismiss, the relationship between environmental group GASP and the prosecution was a subject that would have been heard in the hearing on selective and vindictive prosecution.

Immediately following Glenn and Phillips’ indictment, GASP posted a celebratory tweet, even taking credit for the indictment.

Former GASP director Stacie Propst is the sister of Ethics Commission lawyer Propst Raulston who presented the case to the Jefferson County grand jury.

While many in the environmental community celebrated Glenn’s indictment, the defense argued the prosecution took an illegal short cut to indict him, which denied Glenn due process and amounted to selective and vindictive prosecution.

Monday’s plea agreement ended the two-year drama without further exposure as to what happened behind the scene. Phillips’s case is still pending.

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U.S. Supreme Court rules Alabama can ban curbside voting

“The District Court’s modest injunction is a reasonable accommodation, given the short time before the election,” the three dissenting justices wrote. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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The Supreme Court, in a 5-3 decision, allowed Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill to ban curbside voting, staying a district court injunction that had allowed some counties to offer curbside voting in the Nov. 3 election amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Supreme Court’s majority in its order declined to write an opinion, but Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonya Sotomayor’s five-page dissent is included.

The lawsuit — filed by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Southern Poverty Law Center, American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Alabama and Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program — was brought on behalf of several older Alabamians with underlying medical conditions.

“The District Court’s modest injunction is a reasonable accommodation, given the short time before the election,” the three dissenting justices wrote. 

Sotomayor, who wrote the dissent, closed using the words of one of the plaintiffs in the case. 

“Plaintiff Howard Porter Jr., a Black man in his seventies with asthma and Parkinson’s disease, told the District Court, ‘[So] many of my [ancestors] even died to vote. And while I don’t mind dying to vote, I think we’re past that – We’re past that time,’” Sotomayor wrote. 

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Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill on Wednesday applauded the Supreme Court’s decision. 

“I am proud to report the U.S. Supreme Court has now blocked a lower court’s order allowing the fraudulent practice of curbside voting in the State of Alabama,” Merrill said in a statement. “During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have worked diligently with local election officials in all 67 counties to offer safe and secure voting methods – including through the in-person and mail-in processes. I am glad the Supreme Court has recognized our actions to expand absentee voting, while also maintaining the safeguards put into place by the state Legislature.”

“The fact that we have already shattered voter participation records with the election still being 13 days away is proof that our current voting options are easy, efficient, and accessible for all of Alabama’s voters,” Merrill continued. “Tonight’s ruling in favor of election integrity and security is once again a win for the people of Alabama.”

Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, expressed frustration after the ruling in a tweet.

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“Another devastating loss for voters and a blow for our team fighting to ensure safe voting for Black and disabled voters in Alabama. With no explanation, the SCOTUS allows Alabama to continue making it as hard as possible for COVID-vulnerable voters,” Ifill wrote.

Curbside voting is not explicitly banned by state law in Alabama, but Merrill has argued that because the practice is not addressed in the law, he believes it to be illegal. 

A panel of federal appeals court judges on Oct. 13 reversed parts of U.S. District Judge Abdul Kallon’s Sept. 30 order ruling regarding absentee voting in the upcoming Nov. 3 elections, but the judges let the previous ruling allowing curbside voting to stand. 

In his Sept. 30 ruling, Kallon wrote that “the plaintiffs have proved that their fears are justified” and the voting provisions challenged in the lawsuit “unduly burden the fundamental Constitutional rights of Alabama’s most vulnerable voters and violate federal laws designed to protect America’s most marginalized citizens.”

Caren Short, SPLC’s senior staff attorney, in a statement said the Supreme Court’s decision has curtailed the voting rights of vulnerable Alabamians.

“Once again, the Supreme Court’s ‘shadow docket’ – where orders are issued without written explanation – has curtailed the voting rights of vulnerable citizens amidst a once-in-a-century public health crisis. After a two-week trial, a federal judge allowed counties in Alabama to implement curbside voting so that high-risk voters could avoid crowded polling locations,” Short said. “Tonight’s order prevents Alabama counties from even making that decision for themselves. Already common in states across the South and the country before 2020, curbside voting is a practice now encouraged by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It should be a no-brainer to implement everywhere during a pandemic; the Alabama Secretary of State unfortunately disagrees, as does the Supreme Court of the United States.”

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Sean Worsley, Black disabled veteran arrested for medical marijuana, gets parole

The Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles granted Worsley parole on Wednesday.

Brandon Moseley

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Sean Worsley (VIA ALABAMA APPLESEED)

Sean Worsley, the disabled Black veteran who spent eight months incarcerated for possession of legally prescribed medical marijuana, has been released on parole.

The Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles granted parole on Wednesday for Worsley. Worsley served in the Iraq War where he received a Purple Heart. Unfortunately, he also returned from the war with injuries and chronic PTSD, which he treated with legally prescribed marijuana in his home state of Arizona.

In 2016, Worsley and his wife were driving through Alabama on their way to visit relatives in North Carolina, when they stopped for gas in Gordo. The Worsleys were apparently playing their music too loud so were approached by a Gordo police officer for violating the Gordo noise ordinance.

The Worsleys granted the officer’s request to search the vehicle. He found the marijuana, which Worsley claimed was legally prescribed.

Medical marijuana is legal in most of the country, but not in the state of Alabama. While Worsley did not have enough marijuana in his possession for a trafficking charge, the arresting officer charged him with possession of marijuana for other than personal use, a felony in Alabama. The assistant district attorney prosecuting the case agreed.

Worsley agreed to a five-year probation, including drug treatment, as part of a plea deal to avoid prison in 2017. Worsley claims that the VA would not let him get their drug treatment because he does not have a problem.

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The district attorney’s office in Alabama told APR that Worsley was kicked out of the VA for failure to comply with the program. Alabama ordered Worsley to appear in court in Pickens County. Worsley claims that he did not know about this court date. The court charged him with failure to appear, revoked his probation, and declared him a fugitive from justice.

Worsley was arrested in Arizona for possession of marijuana with an expired medical marijuana card.

Alabama asked that Worsley be extradited back to Pickens County where he was jailed. The trial judge ordered the disabled veteran to serve the full five years in prison. Due to the incredible overcrowding of the Alabama Department of Corrections and the coronavirus crisis, ADOC could not find the space for him, so left him in the Pickens County Jail for five months.

Worsley spent the last three months with ADOC in the aging Draper Correctional Facility. Worsley was denied Community Corrections because he has a nonviolent felony record in 2011 in addition to his Alabama offense.

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Civil libertarians, marijuana advocates, veterans advocates and justice reform advocates were horrified by Worsley’s treatment by the Alabama court system after Alabama Appleseed’s Research Director Leah Nelson first publicized the case.

Worsley’s bid for parole was supported by a coalition of advocates and service providers, including John Carroll, a retired federal magistrate judge and Vietnam War veteran who now teaches at the Cumberland School of Law; Beau Armistead, a Birmingham-based counselor who specializes in treating veterans like Worsley who live with PTSD and has offered to treat Worsley pro bono on his release; BLOX LLC, an architecture and manufacturing firm that has offered Worsley a job; the Dannon Project, a re-entry provider that will help guide Worsley’s transition out of prison; and dozens of veterans who signed a letter to the Parole Board supporting Worsley’s release.

Online supporters raised over $100,000 to cover legal costs and other financial consequences of his conviction, including his wife Eboni Worsley’s move to Birmingham.

“Sean Worsley, was shown compassion by the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles,” said Chey Lindsey Garrigan, executive director of the Alabama Cannabis Industry Association. “This is a commendable act that should be acknowledged.”

Garrigan’s group is lobbying the Alabama legislature to legalize medical marijuana in the state and to guarantee safe passage for travelers from other states, where marijuana is legal so that other visitors are not at risk of being jailed while passing through Alabama.

“My faith in THE MOST HIGH has been further solidified in the demonstration of the law functioning in Alabama to help and not harm individuals via the parole board,” Eboni Worsley said in a statement. “We’re grateful to be able to pick up the pieces and begin rebuilding our lives once Sean is released. I am very grateful to the Parole Board of Alabama for showing the public the heart of the warm welcoming spirit of the people I’ve met since transitioning to Alabama.”

Worsley’s situation attracted national attention in July following a blog post by the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. APR picked up the story as well as The Washington Post and Fox News.

“After three months covering Sean’s case and learning about his life and his service to this country I am thrilled he will no longer be held in prison for the mistake of stopping for gas in Alabama with his legally prescribed medicine,” Nelson said. “At the same time, I can’t say justice has been served, because Sean should never have been arrested or jailed at all.”

“A extraordinary group of advocates finally achieved a good outcome for Sean, but until Alabama fixes its overly punitive marijuana laws, struggling people will continue to be harmed and precious state resources will be wasted on enforcement of laws that have no connection to public safety,” said Appleseed executive director Carla Crowder.

“The case of Sean Worsley deals with a convergence of several issues,” said State Rep. Neil Rafferty, D-Birmingham. “It deals with Alabama’s harmful marijuana laws, particularly concerning medical marijuana. It deals with our country’s misunderstanding and treatment of veterans returning home and transitioning to civilian life. And it deals with excessive policing – that put suspicion on a man doing nothing more than listening to the radio and playing air guitar to his wife.”

Rafferty is a post-9/11 veteran who advocated for Sean’s release.

“While the news of Sean’s parole is welcomed and to be celebrated, it only serves to highlight the legislative chamber’s duty to make right these wrongs and allow our criminal justice system to focus on crimes that actually endanger community safety,” Rafferty added.

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Lawsuit alleges “religious test” on Alabama voter registration form

Plaintiffs say the phrase “so help me God” amounts to a mandatory religious oath.

Micah Danney

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A lawsuit filed in federal court is challenging language on Alabama’s voter registration form, saying that the phrase “so help me God” amounts to a mandatory religious oath prohibited by the Constitution.

Alabama is the only state that requires voters to swear the truthfulness of their voter registration information by signing a form that includes those words without any option of a secular affirmation.

The lead plaintiff is Randal Cragun, an atheist who has sought to register to vote in Alabama since November 2019. He noticed that on the mail-in form that is downloadable from the secretary of state’s website, a warning states: “Read and sign under penalty of perjury,” and, “If you falsely sign this statement, you can be convicted and imprisoned for up to five years.” The declaration begins “I solemnly swear or affirm” and ends with “so help me God.”

Cragun contacted Secretary of State John Merrill’s office to ask how he could register without signing the declaration as it is written, according to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which filed the suit on behalf of Cragun and three other plaintiffs. The next day, Cragun was told by the director of elections that no legal mechanism existed to provide an alternative, and that crossing out any portion would result in the application being rejected.

“It is deplorable that in our secular nation nontheistic citizens are encountering a religious test to register to vote,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of FFRF. “No citizen should have to choose between their right to vote and their freedom of conscience.”

Before filing the lawsuit, the organization sent a letter to Merrill’s office saying that the oath violates the First Amendment. It cited Torcaso v. Watkins, in which the Supreme Court ruled that neither a state nor the federal government can force a person to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion.

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Merrill declined to comment until his office has been served with the lawsuit, but according to FFRF, he has maintained that the registration forms are “prescribed by statute” and “that any changes would require legislative action.”

The lawsuit alleges that his office has the authority to create and amend voter registration forms. In a statement, FFRF noted that in all other states, voters are provided either a secular registration form or are not required to submit an oath or affirmation.

The group added that government officials routinely allow people who must take an oath, including attorneys, jurors and witnesses, “to make a secular affirmation instead when they are unable to swear ‘so help me God’ as a matter of conscience.”

The plaintiffs are seeking a permanent injunction that prohibits the secretary of state from requiring voters who register to swear “so help me God” and that requires his office to provide voter registration forms that don’t include the phrase as a requirement. They are also asking for a declaratory judgment that Merrill has violated the Constitution by not providing a secular alternative.

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“The secretary of state has willfully excluded nontheist citizens from registering to vote and is coercing a statement of belief in a monotheistic god by requiring nontheists to swear a religious oath,” said Patrick Elliott, FFRF’s senior attorney in the litigation.

In its letter to Merrill, FFRF said that a constitutional ban on mandatory religious oaths is a “well-settled issue.” 

In a 1972 case, Nicholson v. Bd. of Comm’rs of Ala. State Bar Ass’n, the court ruled, “We hold that it is a violation of the Constitution for the state of Alabama to compel plaintiff to swear an oath invoking the help of God as a prerequisite to entering upon the practice of law.”

The suit’s three other plaintiffs are Chris Nelson, Heather Coleman and Robert Corker. 

It was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama, Southern Division. Steven P. Gregory, of the Birmingham-based Gregory Law Firm, is local counsel. FFRF associate counsel Liz Cavell is also involved in the case.

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