Both candidates vying for the top position on Alabama’s Supreme Court believe selecting a chief justice will be a pivotal decision for a state with a court system facing significant financial crisis.
Associate Justice Tom Parker, who bested his colleague and acting Chief Justice Lyn Stuart in the June GOP primary, is facing Democratic challenger Judge Robert Vance Jr. in the first election for Alabama’s chief Justice since Roy Moore resigned from the position in April 2017.
Parker has a documented history as a conservative. He was the founding executive director of the influential conservative lobbying group the Alabama Policy Institute and has served on the state’s highest court since 2004.
On the other side of the aisle, Vance has served as a Jefferson County circuit judge since 2002. He is the son of U.S. District Judge Robert S. Vance Sr., who served on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals until he was killed by a package bomb sent to his Mountain Brook home in 1989.
While their political philosophies might contrast sharply, they both agree that judicial funding should be the biggest priority of the incoming chief justice as courts around the state continue to struggle with reduced state funding and increasing caseloads.
Parker, who served as deputy administrative director of courts under Moore, says he has the experience to guide Alabama’s Unified Judicial System through what he called a “financial crisis.”
“The [Alabama] Constitution mandates that the courts be given reasonable and adequate funding, but that has never happened. Historically, we’ve been through serious financial crises where we’ve had layoffs and I have helped manage some of those,” Parker said. “My first and foremost goal would be to see funding restored to the judicial system and to see the system fully staffed so the elected judges and their staffs can do what the public put them there to do.”
Because there’s a possibility a lawsuit over inadequate judicial funding could come before the state supreme court, Parker declined to comment on the specifics of how he would address funding for Alabama’s state court system. However, Parker said he’s committed to making sure the Legislature is “meeting its constitutionally mandated responsibility.”
For Vance, addressing the funding concerns is just one way the chief justice should serve as the voice for judges throughout the state of Alabama. Yet, he said, finding the funding courts need will not be an easy task for a Legislature that has repeatedly faced budget constraints.
“You need a chief justice who makes this a top priority and can show legislators: ‘Here’s why the courts are so important, here are the problems we’re facing and here’s what we need,’” Vance told Lagniappe. “It’s not so much any magic solution as much as it is getting in there every day and fighting and scraping for whatever you can get in terms of court funding.”
Aside from court funding, though, the difference between the chief justice candidates is stark.
Parker has often been compared to Moore, who he’s been an ally of for years. He also has publicly stated that he believes the former chief justice was unlawfully removed from office last year by the Judicial Inquiry Commission (JIC) — an entity Parker himself has recently butted heads with.
The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a JIC complaint against Parker in 2015 after he defended Moore’s refusal to recognize the U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage on a talk radio program. The SPLC claimed that violated judicial ethics by “disrespecting the dignity of the judiciary.”
While the complaint against him was dismissed, Parker went on to file a federal lawsuit against the JIC over claims it was using the judicial canons that formed bases of the SPLC complaint to infringe upon his right to free speech. Both sides settled the lawsuit in May, but Parker has claimed it as a victory.
He told Lagniappe he brought the lawsuit against the JIC because, in a state where judges are elected by the people, it’s important those candidates be able to speak about their stances on key issues.
“I think it’s vitally important that the public be able to hold judges accountable at the polls so we don’t have judges veering to the far left, as often happens with lifetime federal appointments and in other states that have appointed judges as well,” Parker said. “This case was a victory, not just for me but for all judges and the citizens of Alabama.”
Parker has criticized his opponent as a “liberal,” and his campaign has often tried to draw a link between the activities of the national Democratic party and Vance. Discussing Vance, Parker recently brought up the sexual misconduct allegations against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, which most Senate Democrats cited during their opposition to his confirmation.
“Over the past two weeks, we’ve seen that liberal Democrats are willing to throw out the basis of our liberty through our judicial system such as due process and presumptions of innocence until proven guilty,” Parker said. “We don’t need that type leadership in our judicial system.”
However, Vance said what Democrats in Washington do has nothing to do with his campaign for chief justice, and pointed to his track record as judge in Jefferson County — one that he says shows him to be “fair, reasonable and moderate.”
Vance claims Parker too often shows a willingness to “advocate” from the bench, especially when it comes to such issues as abortion and same-sex marriage. The Vance campaign is currently running an ad suggesting Parker would essentially be “another Roy Moore.”
“We’ve got plenty of politicians,” Vance said. “Judges are supposed to be above the political fray.”
Parker has indeed made no secret of the role he believes the state supreme court could play in seeing prior rulings made by “liberal judges” overturned now that President Donald Trump has moved the federal judiciary further to the right.
Before Kavanagh’s confirmation, Parker told the Montgomery Advertiser that the U.S. Supreme Court was “going to need cases they can use to reverse what the liberal majorities have done in the past.”
Vance says he, on the other hand, learned to separate his political and personal beliefs from his role as a judge from his late father, who he says had personal objections to the death penalty that he set aside when reviewing and ruling on cases from the 11th Circuit.
Ironically, the man convicted of murdering Vance Sr. was executed by the state in April.
“[My father] never let his personal feelings rule the day,” Vance said. “I talked to him about that and he said, ‘when your heart tells you to do one thing and the law tells you to do another, as a judge, you’ve got to follow the law. Period.’ That really made an impression on me when I was a young man about to go into law school, and I’ve tried to follow that principle all along.”