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Jorge Ruiz probably fell asleep at the wheel and caused a fatal crash. An Autauga County judge sentenced him to 99 years.

Josh Moon

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Jorge Ruiz probably fell asleep.

Strip away all of the error-filled news reports, the ignorant and racist social media posts and the disgraceful actions of an Autauga County Circuit Court judge, and that’s basically what you’re left with.

A 19-year-old guy stayed up too long, made a bad decision to drive while tired, fell asleep at the wheel and was involved in a horrific accident that killed a nurse.

But that’s probably not the Jorge Ruiz you know.

What you know is this: Jorge Ruiz, an illegal immigrant, was driving drunk, crashed into nurse Marlena Hayes as she drove home from work, and then Ruiz didn’t have the decency to check on her after the crash. Instead, the newspaper stories were happy to tell you, he was reportedly witnessed taking beer cans out of his truck — a clever hint that the illegal immigrant was sloppy drunk and trying to hide his crime instead of aid his victim.  

For his complete disregard for human life — and to please the crowd of people who showed up to speak against him at his sentencing — Ruiz was sentenced to 99 years and three months in prison by circuit court judge Bill Lewis. Before handing down the sentence, Lewis lectured Ruiz about his lack of remorse and not taking responsibility for his actions. 

This is Alabama justice.

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Actually, this was a true injustice.

Because almost all of the facts that people think they know about the Ruiz case are wrong.

Ruiz wasn’t here illegally. When the accident occurred on Oct. 28, 2018, he had a proper work visa that was still in good standing with the Department of Homeland Security.

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Ruiz also wasn’t drunk. His blood alcohol level, according to the toxicology report entered into evidence, was .016. That’s about one-fifth the legal limit (.08) and even below the threshold (.04) at which a typical male adult’s motor function starts to become even slightly impaired. His BAC also failed to meet the threshold for a minor to be intoxicated (.o20).

Ruiz isn’t sure what occurred immediately after the accident — an accident that resulted from a head-on collision at 70 mph — because he was a bit foggy. He was transported to the hospital to get checked out. He could have been removing bottles, but he wasn’t arrested at the scene or at the hospital, which suggests that the troopers didn’t feel he was intoxicated and trying to cover up his excessive drinking.

In reality, Jorge Ruiz fell asleep. 

An expert at trial testified that Ruiz’s Ford F-150 drifted slowly to the left in the seconds before the crash and that there was no evidence of braking. His speed also increased. 

Evidence at trial, including statements from Ruiz, explained the entire story: Ruiz, who was just 19 at the time of the crash, had worked all day the day before, then drove to a party in Birmingham. He left the site of the party in the early morning hours and drove home to Prattville. He was almost there when he fell asleep and crashed into Hayes. 

To be clear, what happened here deserves punishment. Ruiz was careless in his actions. His decision to drive after getting little to no sleep in 24 hours was irresponsible and dangerous. He put lives at risk, and Hayes was truly an innocent victim. 

But 99 years? 

Ninety-nine freakin’ years? 

For comparison, let’s look at the case of Erica Nail in Huntsville. Nail, a 28-year-old white woman, was convicted last year of manslaughter after killing 75-year-old Carol Ann Arey. Nail, who had been convicted twice previously of DUI after two separate crashes, was driving under the influence again on the morning of Feb. 19, 2017, when she struck Arey, who was out for her morning walk. Nail fled the scene and was arrested later at her apartment. 

Nail’s sentence: 15 years total, split. She will serve three years in prison and five years on probation. 

Or how about the case of Dennis Hammonds, a 59-year-old white man, who was driving drunk on July 8, 2017, when he crashed into a car carrying the Johnson family. Danetria Rice-Johnson was eight-months pregnant at the time. She and her baby died. 

Hammonds had three — THREE! — previous DUI convictions on his record. His sentence for two murders: 20 years. 

Jorge Ruiz, on the other hand, had no previous convictions for anything. Alacourt records show no traffic citations, and there were no previous criminal offenses introduced at trial. 

From all appearances, he was a law-abiding, gainfully-employed decent human who made one fairly common, but not at all malicious, mistake. He drove while too tired.

So, how did it come to this?

Do a Google search for Ruiz and this case, and the path is pretty easy to follow.

From the start, local media stories portrayed Ruiz as an “illegal immigrant” who was “driving drunk.” Comments on news sites and on Facebook posts that carried those stories most often devolved into racist rhetoric. And the errors were never corrected, despite Ruiz’s attorney repeatedly showing reporters Ruiz’s work visa and the toxicology report being part of the case evidence.

On top of that, Hayes was well liked and a seemingly wonderful human being. A nurse with a new home and a supportive family, she had connections all over the local community. And those folks were, of course, devastated by her death. And they were angered by the stories about her death.

At Ruiz’s sentencing, dozens of people showed up to support Hayes’ family, including a local sheriff. That outcry reached the judge.

A letter to Judge Bill Lewis was oddly included in the case documents in Alacourt and illustrated how the misinformation spread. The author, an uninvolved person who was apparently friends with Hayes, wrote to praise Lewis for preventing Ruiz from “being deported” by ICE back to Mexico. And it noted that Ruiz was “in the country illegally” and “operating his vehicle under the influence of alcohol.”

That public pressure seemed to have an effect on the judge.

Lewis originally assigned a $50,000 bond following Ruiz’s arrest just after the accident. Ruiz’s family posted that bond and Ruiz was set to be released. However, before he processed out, officials at the Autauga County Jail contacted ICE and reported Ruiz for not having a social security number. ICE agents picked up Ruiz and transported him to Louisiana, where it was eventually determined that he had a work visa, according to records. Ruiz was later returned to Prattville. 

After returning to the Autauga County Jail, Ruiz was set to bond out of jail again. But prosecutors requested the bail be revoked because, based solely on ICE’s brief detention of Ruiz — of which he had no control over — he should be deemed a flight risk. And when I say “solely,” that was the only explanation provided. 

Lewis, who had two days earlier assigned only a $50,000 bond, granted the prosecution’s request and revoked Ruiz’s bond. 

So, to sum up …

A 19-year-old who fell asleep driving and had a horrific accident was denied bond, tossed in jail for the rest of his life, treated worse than pretty much any murderer in this state — all outside of standard precedent — and then was convicted by a jury of 11 white people and one black female of the most serious offense possible. 

After which, the judge lectured him on his lack of remorse during the trial — which could have had something to do with the fact that he barely speaks English — and for not taking responsibility for the crime — which is a judge’s way of saying he’s angry that the defendant didn’t take a plea bargain. 

A 19-year-old is in jail for the rest of his life because he fell asleep at the wheel.

And we all know why.

 

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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Conservative Leadership Conference panel discusses prison reform

Brandon Moseley

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A panel discussed reforming Alabama’s prisons at the Conservative Leadership Conference in Florence Saturday.

State Senator Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, is Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and serves on the state prison task force. He is also a Republican candidate for Alabama Supreme Court, Place 1.

“Prison reform is a very vague term,” Ward said.

Ward warned that the state is under the threat of federal receivership of its prison and “It is going to cost money,” to satisfy the federal courts and the Department of Justice.

Recidivism is the rate that convicts re-offend once they are released. Decreasing the recidivism rate is a key component of addressing prison overcrowding.

Rich Anderson works with the Alabama Attorney General’s office.

“There are plenty of folks in prison that don’t want to do anything else,” Anderson said.

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“There is an old saying that you can lead a horse to water; but you can’t make him drink,” Anderson said. “I want to make sure that there is water to be had if these guys want to drink.”

Chris Connolly is the Lauderdale County District Attorney.

“If they are selling drugs in Alabama they need to go to prison,” Connolly said.

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“Taking away local discretion is a bad thing to me,” Connolly added on proposed sentencing law changes.

Mary Windom is the presiding Judge of the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals. Windom is running for re-election in the Republican primary for her Place 1 seat.

She thanked Ward for working with her on reducing the number of frivolous appeals of criminal verdicts. It took two years for the Legislature to understand.

“40 percent of them (inmates in Alabama’s prisons) have a mental health issue,” Ward said. 76 percent of them are there for violent crimes.

Anderson said that Alabama currently has 175 people on death row and the AG’s office only has eight lawyers in our division to handle all of those appeals from death row inmates.

Windom said that she and the other judges on the Court of Criminal Appeals have a large caseload.

“The five judges on the court of the criminal appeals handle all of those case plus every other criminal appeal,” Anderson explained. “One of the frustrations is how long death penalty cases take.”

Anderson said that many of those filings by defense teams in death penalty appeals cases are two hundred and three hundred pages long.

Connolly said, “David Riley executed a guy who was doing his job in a liquor store. Everybody knows he did it. If it (the death penalty) were real he would be dead.”

“It takes twenty years,” Connolly said.

“It is down to fourteen,” Ward answered.

“It needs to happen sooner,” Connolly replied. A guy like David Riley should already have been executed. “The problem is that the appeals never end. Justice delayed is justice denied.”

Rich Anderson blamed “Fake News” for creating a “false narrative” that there are lots of innocent people convicted of a crime. When there is a retrial and a guy like me can’t find the witness from twenty years ago that person is released and the defense claims he was exonerated and not guilty of the crime in the first place. That is not true.

“They are poisoning the public with that the prosecutor is not a minister of justice,” Anderson said. “That is a problem in our country this false narrative that we have all of these people. Exoneration is a false narrative.”

Ward said that exoneration is only a small part of criminal cases.

“I have been a defense attorney,” Connolly said. “I know how that game works.”

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New marshal installed at Alabama Supreme Court

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Left to right: New Marshal Earl Marsh Jr., Chief Justice Tom Parker, retired Marshal Willie L. James

In a packed Courtroom at the Supreme Court of Alabama on Wednesday, February 12, 2020, a historic “passing of the torch” ceremony was held to swear-in the Thirteenth Marshal of the Appellate Courts of Alabama, Earl Marsh, Jr., and to honor his beloved predecessor, Willie L. James, who retired January 1, 2020.  James was appointed in 2001 as the first African-American Marshall of the appellate courts, and Marsh served as Chief Deputy Marshal since 2017. 

Chief Justice Tom Parker welcomed Marsh’s recent promotion to Marshal: “Marshal Marsh has been a blessing to our whole building from when he first joined our Marshal’s Office in 2017. When our beloved Marshal Willie James retired at the first of this year, we turned to Marsh as the natural successor. Marsh brings the professionalism and dedication that we need for the essential duties of keeping the Heflin-Torbert Judicial Building safe and secure for our Courts, employees, and the public.”  

Marshal Marsh was sworn in by Chief Justice Parker on January 27, but the Supreme Court of Alabama, members of the Court of Criminal Appeals and the Court of Civil Appeals, along with many friends and family of Marshal Marsh, and employees from throughout the Heflin-Torbert Judicial Building, gathered to witness the February 12 ceremony honoring both the new Marshal, Marsh, and the retired Marshal, James.

First, retired Marshal James was recognized by Senior Associate Justice Mike Bolin for his years of faithful and loyal service to the Courts and members of the judicial building, and for being “one of the best men I’ve ever known.” Marshal James, with many of his family members in attendance, was presented with two framed commendations — one from the Supreme Court Justices and one from Governor Kay Ivey — for his years of service in law enforcement, including his days with the Montgomery Police Department and his decades of service in the Marshal’s office.

Next, Marshal Marsh was sworn in with his wife Jennifer holding a Bible by his side. In brief remarks, Marsh thanked God, his family, and those in attendance for their support and for entrusting him to provide a “blanket of protection” around the Courts and personnel under his care.

Marshal Marsh, a native of Greenville, Alabama, served his country twice in the United States Army, and has served his state in various law enforcement roles.  Marsh served in the Department of Corrections at Holman Prison, graduated from the Montgomery Police Academy, and served as a deputy in the Lowndes County Sheriff’s department.  

Marshal Marsh and his wife, Jennifer, reside in Deatsville, Alabama.  They are active members of their church, Big Union Christian Church in Lowndes County.

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For more information about Marshal Marsh, see his bio on the Supreme Court’s website here.

 

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Bills could improve access to diversion programs, report notes high fees and roadblocks

Eddie Burkhalter

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Bills recently introduced in the Alabama House and Senate aim to improve access to specialized courts and diversion programs, meant to get people the help they need and keep them from behind bars. 

Even with more access to those programs and courts, however, many can’t afford the exorbitant fees to remain free, according to a report released this week by an Alabama nonprofit criminal justice reform advocacy group, which also found racial disparities and a lack of critical information on outcomes. 

Sen Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, told APR on Wednesday that his bill would help provide access to those programs to people who live in smaller communities, which don’t have the money to afford them, by allowing judges to transfer municipal cases to circuit and district courts that do. 

Each participant – the defendant, the municipal court and the county court – would have to agree to transfer a case, according to the legislation. 

“You increase the opportunities for diversion, and smaller towns don’t have it,” Ward said. “It gives them a chance to avoid going to prison or going to jail.” 

In order for a presiding circuit judge to transfer a case, all parties would have to agree to do so, and the defendant would have to qualify for the drug court, mental health court, veteran’s court or diversion program, according to the bills. 

Rep. Jim Hill, R-Moody, introduced the House’s version of the bill. Attempts to reach Hill on Wednesday were unsuccessful. 

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The legislation promises a way out of serving time in county jails and prisons for low-level crimes, but even with more access, many of those programs are too costly for participants to afford, according to a report released Monday by Alabama Appleseed, which in 2018 and 2019 surveyed 1,011 people who had participated in those specialized courts and diversion programs. 

What researchers at Alabama Appleseed found was that most people in those programs are poor, making less than $14,999 a year, and paid a median of $1,600 for those diversion programs, or more than 10 percent of their income. 

“Close to half used high-cost payday or title loan,” according to the report. “More than eight in ten gave up a necessity like food, rent, or prescription medication.” 

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Carla Crowder, executive director of Alabama Appleseed, in a message to APR on Wednesday said that to the extent that the legislation expands access to diversion, it looks like a step in the right direction. 

“But so much more is needed. Real reform of Alabama’s inconsistent patchwork of diversion programs means no one is excluded because they’re too poor to pay all the fees, or cannot take off work, or have small children to care for. And our research found all of these scenarios are far too common

Crowder said that there’s also concern that the change could create new revenue streams for the various entities involved, which could result in more hardships for vulnerable low-income people charged with crimes. 

“Oftentimes new diversion programs spring up as a way to collect money from vulnerable people desperate to stay out of jail or prison. The last thing we need is more of that,” Crowder said. 

Ward told APR that there are good points raised in the Appleseed report, and while he doesn’t agree with all of the report’s suggestions for fixes, he does believe there’s room for improvement.

Among the report’s recommendations for legislators is to “Establish and enforce uniform statewide standards for all diversion programs and alternatives to incarceration.” 

Ward agrees, and said the state has “a sporadic nature of diversion programs. Some counties that work great, some not so much. Some, it’s a pay-to-play system.” 

“I do think some of these are absorbing, so I think Appleseed was correct on that,” Ward said. 

Ward also said there needs to be more uniformity among the many different specialized courts and referral programs, and he agrees with the report’s finding that there needs to be more transparency on the outcomes of such programs. 

Read the full report here

Among the the reports findings are: 

Disturbing Racial Disparities

In 2018, the Alabama Department of Corrections had 20,585 inmates in its custody population. Of those, 43 percent were white, while 56 percent were black. 

The same year the population of Community Corrections programs was nearly 60 percent white and 40 percent black. 

“The disparity between the racial demographics of the population in custody, who must bear the violence, danger, and misery of Alabama’s prisons, and the racial demographics of those in Community Corrections, who enjoy a measure of liberty, is striking,” the report reads. 

High fees

In Baldwin County, 18 months in a pretrial diversion program can cost a person  $3,010. 

The report notes that in Lee County, traffic cases can be disposed of through pretrial diversion for $673, DUIs are $1,183, while felony drug offenses cost $1,713. 

“Participants deemed poor enough for an appointed attorney can be required to pay an additional $500 in appointed attorneys fees, pushing the total cost for a felony above $2,000,” the report reads. 

Of those polled by researchers 57 percent said they’d gone without food to pay to remain in the programs, 30 percent said they’d forgone paying on medical bills or for medication to do so and 12 percent said they failed to pay child support due to the costly programs. 

“42% admitted to committing a crime to pay diversion costs and fees; 29% sold drugs; 24% stole,” the report reads. 

Lack of data, roadblocks to success 

“Alabama does not maintain any data on drug courts. The state does not maintain information about demographics, cost to participants, criminal charges, recidivism rates, length of time in drug court before graduation or termination, or any other data that would permit researchers, legislators, judges or anyone else to assess the efficacy of its drug courts.” 

Researchers noted in the report that there is an employee of the Administrative Office of Courts who is doing some of that research, but that it’s unclear if that data, if completed, will be made public. 

The difficulty of getting to required drug court appearances is exacerbated because “people are required to plead in to and attend drug courts in the jurisdiction where they are charged, not the jurisdiction where they live.” 

One man, whom researchers witnessed at a drug court in Marengo County, had to drive from his home in Etowah County to get to the court, a 364-mile round trip. 

“For drug court participants who don’t have licenses or who lack access to a vehicle of their own, this is a terrible obstacle, even an impossible one,” the report reads.

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Andrew Brasher confirmed to 11th Circuit Court of Appeals

Brandon Moseley

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Tuesday, the U.S. Senate voted to confirm former Alabama Solicitor General Andrew Brasher to the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit Court. U.S. Senator Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, voted for Brasher’s confirmation; but Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, voted against.

“Andrew Brasher’s confirmation to sit on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit is a testament to his vast legal ability and commitment to upholding the rule of law as it is written,” said Senator Shelby. “I believe Judge Brasher has served with impartiality, integrity, and purpose as a district judge, and I am confident he will continue to do so in this new capacity. I commend President Trump on his decision to nominate Judge Brasher to the Eleventh Circuit and know that his dedication to justice will contribute to the respected standards of our nation’s judicial system.”

Brasher was nominated by President Donald J. Trump (R) in November 2019.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall (R) praised the U. S. Senate for its confirmation of Judge Brasher.

“The Senate’s confirmation of Judge Andrew Brasher to the U.S. Court of Appeals is a victory for the rule of law,” said AG Marshall. “Judge Brasher’s deep record of public service, combined with his impeccable legal credentials, more than qualify him for a seat on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. I am especially proud of his contributions as Solicitor General for the State of Alabama, where he successfully argued cases before the Alabama Supreme Court, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court. Without a doubt, Judge Brasher will bring a renewed focus to upholding the law as he assumes his new position on the federal appeals court.”

U.S. Senator and former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said, “One of the most important legal developments of the last quarter-century is the rise of state solicitors general. State attorneys general are recruiting top-tier legal talents and empowering them to have a significant impact on major constitutional issues being litigated across the country. Unsurprisingly, that top-tier legal talent is more and more being looked to for judicial nominations.”

Brasher’s confirmation raises the number of former state attorney generals appointed to the federal bench by Pres. Trump to 26.

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“They’re all outstanding lawyers with remarkable academic records and were distinguished practitioners long before they came to the attorney general’s office,” Marshall said. “But beyond that, solicitor generals were involved in the most significant constitutional cases around the country, which is, I think, a perfect training ground for individuals who ultimately make those decisions.”

Republican Attorney General Association (RAGA) Chairman and Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry saod, “If you really want to impact policy—which is kind of sad when you think about it—really, AGs have been able to impact policy greater than anybody of the legislature right now, because of the litigious nature of our [political] environment. So it’s been a great way to actually get some things done.”

RAGA Executive Director Adam Piper added, “When you have folks who for eight years were the last line of defense for our nation and the rule of law, it’s a pretty good predictor [that] these folks are rock solid, making them one heck of a farm team and a pretty easy call-up. It’s not a risky move as we saw with frankly a lot of the Bush judges. You were taking folks up and kind of like shaking a Magic 8 Ball hoping they’re gonna be conservative judges.”

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Brasher has served as a district judge for the Middle District of Alabama since May 2019, having been first nominated by President Trump in April 2018. Prior to his time as a district judge, he served as the solicitor general of the state of Alabama. In this capacity, he argued cases in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, and the Alabama Supreme Court. Brasher tried cases in Federal and State courts, during which he won two “Best Brief Award” honors from the National Association of Attorneys General. Before his appointment as Solicitor General in 2014, he served for several years as Deputy Solicitor General.

Prior to joining the Alabama Attorney General’s office, Brasher practiced in the litigation and white collar criminal defense practice groups in the Birmingham office of Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP. Brasher also served as a law clerk to Judge William H. Pryor, Jr., of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit after earning his Jaw degree from Harvard Law School, where he graduated cum laude. During his time at Harvard, he was a member of the Harvard Law Review and winner of the Victor Brudney Prize. He was also the first of his family to graduate from law school. Judge Brasher received his Bachelor of Arts with honors from Samford University in Birmingham, where he graduated summa cum laude and currently serves on the Board of Overseers.

Brasher’s confirmation was opposed by many in the Senate.

U.S. Senator Chris Coons, D-Deleware, said in opposition to Brasher’s confirmation, “Voting rights are at the very foundation of civil liberties and civil rights in our society, and we should be doing everything possible to protect and defend them. I’m gravely concerned that Judge Andrew Brasher, if confirmed to the Eleventh Circuit, would only continue the efforts to roll them back. Judge Brasher’s record and lack of candor during his confirmation hearing show that he is unfit for this appellate judgeship in the Eleventh Circuit, and I will be voting no.”

Andrew Gillum is a former Mayor of Tallahassee and was the 2018 Democratic nominee for governor of Florida and is a fellow at People For the American Way.

“I am deeply, deeply disturbed about the nomination of Andrew Brasher to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals,” Gillum wrote in opposition. “This nomination is being engineered by the Trump White House and Senate Republicans with a very specific agenda in mind. This nomination is a very deliberate nail in the coffin of voting rights in the Eleventh Circuit, at a very deliberately chosen time in our history.”

Benard Simelton is the President of the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP.

“From Selma to Shelby County, Alabama is ground zero for voting rights,” Simelton said. “Andrew Brasher has been on the wrong side of every voting rights case he has touched. His nomination is a slap in the face to African Americans, and in particular to our heroes like John Lewis and Dr. Martin Luther King, who risked their lives to get us the vote. As we celebrate the 55th anniversary of Selma, we call upon every senator to honor those who marched by voting against Brasher’s confirmation.”

U.S. Senator Doug Jones, D-Alabama, was a “No” vote on Brasher’s confirmation.

Sen. Jones said recently, “In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch said, “The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.” All along, my conscience has been my guide. But voting my conscience does not require courage — it simply requires doing what I know is right.”

“Another good, solid conservative judge has been confirmed, yet Doug Jones voted no. Just the latest reminder that we MUST #DumpDoug!” Senate candidate Congressman Bradley Byrne, R-Montrose, said on social media. “In the Senate, I’ll vote to confirm President Trump’s judges and work to make sure our Constitution is protected against activist judges.”

 

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