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U.S. Supreme Court likely to overturn “flatly inconsistent” Alabama Supreme Court ruling in Poarch Creek immunity case

Josh Moon

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The U.S. solicitor general has recommended that the U.S. Supreme Court overturn an Alabama Supreme Court ruling in a case that challenged the reaches of sovereign immunity for the Poarch Band of Creek Indians after the tribe promised to waive its immunity in some cases.

The solicitor general recommended that the high court not grant a full review of the case, which stemmed from a 2015 car crash involving a tribal employee, noting the Alabama Supreme Court’s ruling was a particularly poor one that badly misinterpreted existing case law. Instead, the government recommended the justices wait to see if the Poarch Creeks carried through with a promise to waive the tribe’s sovereign immunity in certain cases, and if so, simply reverse the Alabama Supreme Court decision and remand it for further review.

According to Poarch Creek Attorney General Lori Madison Stinson, PCI has now adopted an act, known as the Torts Claims Act, that would indeed waive its immunity in certain cases, but only if the complaints are filed in tribal court.

“Tribal law has long provided a limited waiver of the tribe’s sovereign immunity that allows those injured in the tribe’s gaming facilities to bring suits in Tribal Court,” Stinson said in a statement to APR. “The Tribal Council decided that expanding that limited waiver so that it also applies in other places was the right thing to do.”

Stinson said if the case progressed now, as recommended by the solicitor general, it would be dismissed from state court and could be refiled in tribal court. She also noted that the tribe has, for several years, allowed civil lawsuits for parties injured in a tribal casino or on tribal lands, but the new Torts Act expands that to incidents off tribal lands.

The case, Poarch Band of Creek Indians v. Wilkes, originated from a New Year’s Day 2015 car crash in which an employee of the tribe’s Wind Creek Casino in Wetumpka was driving a company vehicle while intoxicated and crashed into a car driven by Casey Wilkes and her boyfriend. Wilkes, who was in high school at the time, suffered a traumatic brain injury, and it was later learned that the employee, Barbie Spraggins, had an extensive history of drinking on the job.

Wilkes and her boyfriend sued Spraggins and the tribe, but an Elmore County Circuit Court judge tossed the lawsuit against PCI on the grounds that the tribe’s sovereign immunity shielded it from lawsuits. On appeal, the Alabama Supreme Court overturned that ruling, citing a thin caveat in Supreme Court precedent and determined that the tribe could be sued. PCI, of course, appealed that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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Numerous legal scholars have speculated that the justices want a case in order to better define the court’s stance and limitations on tribal sovereign immunity, and many have wondered if the Wilkes case might get the court’s full treatment. But the Alabama Supreme Court’s tendency to disregard precedent and write legally suspect opinions will prevent it.

In a brief filed in the case, the solicitor general described the Alabama Supreme Court’s opinion as a “novel holding” and said it was “flatly inconsistent” with legal precedent. Even worse, the solicitor general said even if the opinion was wrong, it was so poorly constructed that the court couldn’t take it up, calling the opinion a true “outlier.”

As for the Poarch Creeks, Stinson said the decision to allow non-tribal members to file civil lawsuits for incidents such as the Spraggins and Wilkes crash will open the tribe up to more litigation.

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“It absolutely will do that,” she said. “But the Tribal Council determined it was the right thing to do to allow those with legitimate claims against the tribe to have an avenue to bring those claims.”

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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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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(STOCK PHOTO)

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. 

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

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“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.

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.

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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.

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.”

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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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Vestavia doctor sentenced to 30 years for producing child porn

A federal judge sentenced Ronald Tai Young Moon Jr. of Vestavia Hills, 56, to 30 years in prison.

Brandon Moseley

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(STOCK PHOTO)

A federal judge sentenced a former Vestavia Hills doctor to 30 years in prison for producing and possessing child pornography, U.S. Attorney Prim Escalona and FBI Special Agent in Charge Johnnie Sharp Jr. announced Thursday.

U.S. District Judge Annemarie Axon sentenced Ronald Tai Young Moon Jr. of Vestavia Hills, 56, to 30 years in federal prison.

“Unfortunately, this sentence will not undo the harm suffered by Moon’s victims,” Escalona said. “However, understanding that the consequences of this conduct is severe might discourage other sexual predators from victimizing innocent children in this district.”

Moon worked as a doctor at the Industrial Athlete clinic in Birmingham until his license was revoked earlier this year. Moon went to trial in February. After four days of testimony, a jury convicted Moon of possessing, producing and attempting to produce child pornography.

“I am proud of the effort put forth by my agents in order to ensure this defendant was brought to justice and will no longer be able to harm children,” Sharp said. “Moon serving the next 30 years in federal prison ensures there is one less predator victimizing the most innocent and vulnerable members of our community.”

Federal prosecutors presented evidence at trial proving that between the mid-1990s and 2012, Moon secretly recorded neighbors and guests in his own home including girls as young as 12 years old.

Some of those individuals were filmed naked, dressing and undressing. The footage was located on VHS videotapes found in the defendant’s locked private office with other pornographic VHS tapes, steps away from a TV and VCR set that was working and plugged in.

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Evidence of multiple hidden-camera devices was also found in the defendant’s office.

Moon will also serve five years of supervised release after he gets out and, by law, will also be required to register as a sex offender.

Assistant U.S. Attorney John Ward and First Assistant U.S. Attorney Lloyd Peeples III prosecuted the case.

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The United States attorney’s office also thanked members of the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General for assisting in the investigation.

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