Thursday, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall (R) and the Foundation for Moral Law both applauded a 7 to 2 U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding the constitutionality of a 40-foot Cross near Bladensburg, Maryland.
The Bladensburg Peace Cross is a 40-foot cross honoring those who died during World War I,
The cross was erected after World War I to honor American soldiers who died in that conflict.
The American Humanist Association had challenged the Cross as an unconstitutional Christian symbol. The Fourth Circuit ruled that the Cross had to be removed.
Justice Alito’s plurality opinion, reversing the Fourth Circuit, stated that the “removal or radical alteration [of the Cross] at this date would be seen by many not as a neutral act but as the manifestation of a hostility toward religion that has no place in our Establishment Clause traditions.”
Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall praised the Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of the World War I memorial in the shape of a cross.
“I applaud the Supreme Court’s strong ruling in American Legion v. American Humanist Association that a cross in a public memorial setting is not a violation of the Constitution’s prohibition on the government establishing an official religion,” said Attorney General Marshall.
“Alabama joined an amicus brief in support of the continued display of the ‘Peace Cross’ memorial in Bladensburg, Maryland, because many hundreds of similar public monuments and memorials across our land stand as both pillars of respect to the fallen and important symbols of our country’s history and traditions,” Marshall wrote. “As Justice Thomas noted in his concurrence, the American Humanist Association failed to demonstrate ‘that maintaining a religious display on public property shares any of the historical characteristics of an establishment of religion. . . . Instead, the [state’s park and planning] commission has done something that the founding generation, as well as the generation that ratified the Fourteenth Amendment, would have found commonplace: displaying a religious symbol on government property.’”
Foundation President Kayla Moore noted that the Foundation had filed an amicus brief supporting the American Legion and the Cross.
“Crosses are found throughout military cemeteries, and brave soldiers are awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Navy Cross, and the Air Force Cross,” Kayla Moore said. “The cross not only represents Christ’s sacrifice for us but is an integral part of our American heritage.”
Foundation Senior Counsel John Eidsmoe authored the brief.
“We argued that the public display of the cross has deep roots in American history that precede. the Constitution,” Eidsmoe said. “Nothing in the language or history of the First Amendment indicates any intent to change that tradition. We also noted the identification of the cross with military sacrifice. Removing the cross, we argued, would communicate a message of exclusion to believers. Much of the language of the plurality and concurring opinions parallels the arguments in our amicus brief.”
Liberty Counsel said in a statement that while the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Bladensburg Peace Cross will remain standing; however, the High Court sidestepped the opportunity to overturn the so-called “Lemon Test,” sometimes used to determine if a law violates the First Amendment Establishment Clause.
Liberty Counsel also previously filed an amicus brief to the High Court in support of the war memorial.
While the High Court ruled in favor of the “Peace Cross,” Liberty Counsel said that it had sidestepped the opportunity to overrule the Lemon v. Kurtzman decision. The the Court ruled that a Rhode Island law that paid some of the salary of some parochial school teachers was unconstitutional.
Liberty Counsel said in their statement that this test has proven to be unworkable and has led to inconsistent and contradictory decisions on the constitutionality of 10 Commandment monuments and cross monuments like the “Peace Cross.”
Liberty Counsel previously argued that the “Lemon Test” should be replaced with an objective test that would yield clear and consistent results. The new test would analyze displays based upon history, whether the symbol is ubiquitous and whether the display is coercive, i.e., is actively trying to proselytize or push a particular religious belief.
“Today the Supreme Court made a common sense ruling that the ‘Peace Cross’ war memorial does not violate the First Amendment Establishment Clause,” said Mat Staver, Founder and Chairman of Liberty Counsel. “Today’s ruling is an encouraging example of the Court returning to the Constitution and abandoning these unworkable manmade tests. It is disappointing that the Court chose not to overturn the unconstitutional precedent on the Establishment Clause known as the ‘Lemon Test.’ We must return to the Constitution and abandon these unworkable manmade tests.”
Marshall was optimistic that the Supreme Court’s decision in the Maryland case should have a positive impact on a different case involving the City of Pensacola’s defense of its 78-year-old cross monument to World War II veterans, which faces a legal challenge similar to the one the Supreme Court just rejected.
In October 2018, Alabama led a 13-state amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to overturn two lower court rulings declaring the Pensacola monument unconstitutional. The Court is expected to consider the case in the coming weeks.
“We are hoping that the Supreme Court is moving more into the conservative view of our rights to honor God in our country,” Foundation for Moral Law founder Roy Moore said regarding Thursday’s decision.
Sheriffs want a database with all concealed carry permits
Monday the Alabama Sheriff’s Association announced their support for a bill that would create a statewide repository of information about concealed carry permits and would allow officers to check the validity of a concealed carry permit.
House Bill 308 is sponsored by State Representative Shane Stringer (R-Mobile).
“In the past 13 months, Alabamians have encountered a terrible onslaught of violent conduct towards law enforcement officers,” the Sheriffs announced in a press release. “We have suffered a record seven deaths of law enforcement officers in Alabama alone as a result of handgun violence. Recognizing this disturbing trend, the Alabama Sheriffs Association is announcing the creation of a new information system designed for the protection and assistance of all law enforcement officers in the State of Alabama. The Alabama Responding Officer Warning System (AROWS) is designed to verify the validity of an Alabama issued Concealed Carry Permit and will be automatically accessed by law enforcement through the L.E.T.S./ACJIC criminal justice information system any time an officer performs a traffic stop or engages in other law enforcement investigations. Among other data, it will contain critical information such as recent arrests for violent offenses to give officers a clear picture of the persons they are dealing with.’
House Bill 308, introduced in the Alabama Legislature last Thursday, codifies the AROWS system. It is sponsored by Representatives Stringer, Reynolds, Farley, Isbell, Marques, Pettus, Simpson, Sorrells, Shaver, McCampbell, Hanes, Ledbetter and Rich.
In addition to the statewide concealed carry permit repository, HB308 also standardizes the appearance, size and information content of all concealed carry pistol permits across the state to better assist officers in recognizing fraudulent concealed carry permits.
Montgomery County Sheriff Derrick Cunningham is the current president of the Alabama Sheriffs Association.
“We owe an absolute duty to every Alabama officer who puts his life on the line for us every day to see that he or she makes it home to their family safely,” Sheriff Cunningham said. “The AROWS system is a huge step towards arming him with as much information as possible to ensure that happens and we don’t suffer yet another officer shot or killed.”
The Sheriffs have consistently opposed “Constitutional carry” laws that would end the state requirement that Alabama citizens must purchase a concealed carry permit from their local sheriff’s department. They also oppose legislation giving the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency the authority over managing a state database.
“In recent legislative sessions there have been efforts to remove the local sheriff’s ability to oversee the issuance, monitoring and revocation of pistol permits and transfer this duty to an overworked and understaffed state agency in Montgomery,” the Sheriffs wrote in a statement. “Sheriffs are in our communities, at our schools, in our churches and on our streets every day protecting and serving our citizens. They come in contact with both good law-abiding citizens as well as the bad ones. They know their constituents better than anyone and it is critical that he or she remain in this role.”
“We applaud the Alabama Legislature for their assistance in this effort,” the Sheriffs continued. “Members of both the House of Representatives and the Alabama Senate have been extremely supportive and helpful in making sure our law enforcement officers are kept safe. This collaborative effort between the Alabama Legislature and the Alabama Sheriffs is a great example of governmental entities collaborating to keep all Alabama citizens safe and well protected.”
Alabama is already an “open-carry” state, where all citizens, who have not lost their gun rights, are entitled to wear their guns openly on their person. Covering the weapon with a jacket or blazer or putting it in a purse however requires having a concealed carry permit. Transporting a gun in a motor vehicle, including a motorcycle, unless it is unloaded and locked in a box out of reach also requires the purchase of a concealed carry permit. Alabama citizens who do not want to purchase a permit, but who still want to have a weapon with them in their vehicles can legally have a long gun (rifle or shotgun) with them.
Senate Bill 1 “Constitutional carry” is being sponsored by State Senator Gerald Allen (R-Tuscaloosa). It has been assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Alabama Democratic Party lawsuit was back in court on Thursday
The dispute goes on forever and the lawsuit never ends.
A Montgomery County Circuit Court judge on Thursday delayed a decision on whether he has the standing to settle an internal dispute within the Alabama Democratic Party but indicated that he’s leaning towards ruling that he does.
Judge Greg Griffin said he would rule soon on the matter, but made no promise that the decision would come before Alabama’s primary elections on March 3.
Thursday’s hearing was the latest in the seemingly endless fight over control of the ADP and was the next step in a lawsuit brought by former ADP chairwoman Nancy Worley. Worley and her supporters, which have proven to be a decided minority of the State Democratic Executive Committee, filed the lawsuit late last year after the Democratic National Committee invalidated her re-election as chair and forced the party to change its bylaws and hold new elections.
Those new elections resulted in Rep. Chris England being elected as party chairman and former Rep. Patricia Todd being elected vice-chair. The new party leadership has the backing of the national party, which pulled funding from ADP because Worley and others refused to rewrite the state party’s bylaws to be more inclusive.
Worley filed her initial lawsuit prior to the elections in which she was booted out of her position, and Griffin, who was widely criticized for his handling of the case, granted a temporary restraining order that prevented the Reform Caucus of the ADP from meeting. That decision by Griffin was immediately overturned by the Alabama Supreme Court, in a rare, late-Friday evening emergency ruling.
However, the ALSC did not rule on whether Griffin had standing to settle a dispute within the state party. The court left that question up to Griffin, which was why Thursday’s hearing was held.
The entire thing seems to be an exercise in futility at this point.
The ADP has moved on, with England certifying candidates and DNC officials clearly recognizing him as the rightful party chair. The DNC has no desire to work with Worley, who was stripped of her credentials for failing to follow directives and bylaws of the party.
Even if Griffin creates a reason to invalidate England’s election, it doesn’t seem to matter much. The DNC has validated it, and it accepted the ADP’s new bylaws and changes to leadership structure.
If Worley were to prevail in court, it’s unclear exactly what she would win.
Legislation would limit death penalty appeals
Alabama Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth on Tuesday discussed legislation that would reduce the length of some death penalty appeals.
“Over the last 13 month, seven Alabama law enforcement officers have been killed in the line of duty by violent criminals, which is a new record and obviously not one the state of Alabama is proud of,” Ainsworth said during the press conference at the Alabama State House on Tuesday. “Back the blue has got to be more than just a slogan. Actions must follow words.”
Ainsworth said that death row inmates in Alabama serve approximately 14 years on average before executions are carried out, and that there needs to be a “fair but expedited process in Alabama.”
The proposed legislation would prevent the Alabama Supreme Court from hearing death row appeals in capital murder cases, and would stop all such appeals at the state Court of Criminal Appeals level.
The bills would also require the criminal appeals court to expedite death row appeals when possible, and would reduce the amount of time a person has to appeal such convictions to the U.S. Supreme Court, Ainsworth said.
“This legislation still affords a thorough appeals process, and all the protections guaranteed to them under the U.S. Constitution,” Ainsworth said. “It has been designed to provide both equal justice to inmates, and swifter justice to their victims.”
State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, a candidate for a seat on the state Supreme Court and sponsor of the senate’s version of the bill, said during the press conference that while overall crime rates have been declining, murders in Alabama have increased 25 percent over the last three years.
“I’ve always been an advocate for criminal justice reform, but let me tell you something, public safety is first and foremost, Ward said. “…I think this is a reasonable bill. It still provides for due process.”
State Rep. Connie Row,R-Jasper, is sponsoring the bill in the House and said that as a former police chief she recognizes the value of the lives of those who serve the public. She also worked with crime victims in capital cases, she said, and in “capital cases it’s seeing if you can live long enough to see justice served in a death penalty case.”
The bills also add language that would allow the Alabama Department of Corrections to conduct executions at facilities other than the Holman Correctional Facility near Atmore, where the state’s death chamber is currently located.
ADOC commissioner Jeff Dunn said in January that all death row inmates were being moved to Holman, while the majority of the prison’s areas for other incarcerated men was being closed due to concerns over maintenance problems in a tunnel that carries utilities to those portions of the prison. The death row section of Holman was to remain open, Dunn said.
There are 175 people serving on the state’s death row, according to Alabama Department of Corrections statistics.
Attempts Tuesday to reach staff at the Equal Justice Initiative for comment on the legislation were unsuccessful. The Montgomery legal aid nonprofit works to exonerate death row inmates, among its other initiatives.
According to the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center 167 incarcerated people on death row in the U.S. have been exonerated and released from prison since 1973. Among those formerly on death row, six were scheduled to die by execution in Alabama.
The last Alabama death row inmate exonerated was Anthony Hinton, freed in April 2015 after spending 30 years on death row for the 1985 murders of two fast food supervisors in Birmingham.
The only evidence presented at Hinton’s trial was ballistics testing state prosecutors said proved the bullets that killed the two men came from a gun Hinton’s mother owned.
Hinton lost appeals for a decade before the Equal Justice Initiative took up his case. Subsequent ballistics testing by the nonprofit in 2002 proved that the bullets weren’t a match for the firearm, but the state declined to re-examine the case.
It took another 12 years for Hinton’s appeal to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court’s ruling and granted a new trial.
The judge in his new trial dismissed the charges after the state’s prosecutors determined through additional testing that the bullets could not have come from Hinton’s mother’s gun.
A 2009 study by professors at the University of Colorado and published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology found that 88 percent of the leading criminologists in the U.S. polled did not believe the death penalty effectively deters crime.
Of the leading criminologists polled in the study, 87 percent said that speeding up executions would not add a deterrent effect on crime.
Alabamians for Fair Justice urges lawmakers to repeal habitual offender law
Tuesday in Montgomery, over a hundred advocates for criminal justice reform will urge Alabama lawmakers to adopt reforms to help alleviate Alabama’s prison crisis. Alabamians from across the state will push for major changes that would help make prison sentences proportionate to the crimes committed, prevent people convicted of minor offenses from going to prison, and provide needed supports for people re-entering communities. Today, Alabama’s prison are roughly 170 percent over capacity with staffing levels at 30 percent.
In April 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) warned Alabama that the conditions in the male prisons likely violate the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment. The DOJ letter found Alabama’s prisons do not protect people from violence, sexual abuse, and fail to provide safe living conditions. Alabama’s prison system was also found to have “persistent and severe shortages of mental-health staff and correctional staff, combined with chronic and significant overcrowding,” in in 2017 state-wide ruling in Braggs v. Dunn.
“It is important for Alabama to see the people behind the prison walls,” said LaTonya Tate, executive director and founder, Alabama Justice Initiative. “These are real fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, wives and husbands behind every excessive prison sentence. Lawmakers need to understand that incarcerated Alabamians, their families, and their supporters are constituents too. Their voices matter.”
The lobby day is organized by the Alabamians for Fair Justice (AFJ) coalition.
AFJ’s legislative priorities includes:
- Repealing Alabama’s “three strikes” law, also called the Habitual Felony Offender Act, or HFOA. About 6,000 people in Alabama are serving escalated sentences based on prior offenses, often committed as teenagers. The law permits a Life Without Parole sentence for a single Class A felony if someone has a prior minor drug or property conviction. About 500 Alabamians are sentenced to die in prison for non-homicide crimes under this law.
- Reducing sentences for marijuana possession. Each year, nearly 1,000 people face felony convictions for marijuana possession, a “crime” that is legal for nearly half of the population in the United States. Alabama spends roughly $22 million tax dollars per year to enforce possession laws.
- Making the 2013 sentencing guidelines retroactive. The 2013 presumptive sentencing guidelines were a major contributor to Alabama’s prison population declining. Now, hundreds of people sentenced before 2013 still serve longer sentences than they would face if sentenced now – and for nonviolent crimes. AFJ asks for the Legislature to apply the same guidelines to people convicted prior to the new guidelines.
- Overhaul the state’s community corrections, diversion, and alternative court programs to make them more accessible, especially to people without money, and more accountable to the taxpayers of Alabama. Currently, these programs have no uniform standards, lack necessary oversight, and are funded by the participants.
- Reform the state’s parole system. Roughly nine out of every 10 people up for parole were denied since Governor Kay Ivey appointed Charles Graddick as the director of Alabama’s Bureau of Pardons and Paroles. If this rate continues, ACLU of Alabama estimates the state prison population will increase by 3,700 people due to the dramatic drop in paroles being granted.
Alabama spends about $500 million in tax dollars each year for over 20,000 people in custody, yet the state’s prisons remain dangerous, overcrowded, and understaffed.
Governor Ivey’s main solution to Alabama’s unsafe prisons is to spend $2.6 billion taxpayer dollars “lease” three new mega-prisons that would be built by a private, for-profit corporation.
“When you have the worst prisons in the country, the solution is not to build more. The solution is to enact smart, commonsense reforms to provide treatment, services, and alternatives in communities and keep people out of prison,” said Tate.
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