Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Alabama v. Sessions, 92-6257

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (11th Circuit)
Citation56 F.3d 1281
Docket NumberNo. 92-6257,92-6257
PartiesSOUTHERN CHRISTIAN LEADERSHIP CONFERENCE OF ALABAMA on behalf of its members and on behalf of a state-wide class of black voters; Reverend John L. Alford, individually and on behalf of a class of black voters in the Fifteenth Circuit and District of Montgomery County; Reverend Abraham Woods, Jr., individually and on behalf of a class of black voters in the Tenth Circuit and District of Jefferson County; Reverend P.H. Lewis, individually and on behalf of a class of black voters in the Thirteenth Circuit and District of Mobile County; George W. Grayson, individually and on behalf of a class of black voters in the Twenty-Third Circuit; Charles Steele, Jr., individually and on behalf of a class of black voters in the Sixth Circuit; Reverend John Nettles, individually and on behalf of a class of black voters in the Seventh Circuit; Pearlean S. Jackson, individually and on behalf of a class of black voters in the Twentieth Circuit; Reverend James Milton, individually and on behalf of a class of black voters in the Fifth Circuit; Jesse R. Williams, individually and on behalf of a class of black voters in the Fourth Circuit; Edwin L. Moss, individually and on behalf of a class of black voters in the Fourth Circuit; Luther P. Carmichael, individually and on behalf of a class of black voters in the Fourth Circuit; Mary K. Stovall, individually and on behalf of a class of black voters in the Twenty-Sixth Circuit and District of Russell County; Arthur L. Sumbry, individually and on behalf of a class of black voters in the Twenty-Sixth Circuit and District of Russell County; Albert Turner, individually and on behalf of a class of black voters in the Fourth Circuit; J.S. Thomas, individually and on behalf of a class of black voters in the Fourth Circuit; and Malcolm R. Newman, individually and on behalf of a class of black voters in the Twentieth Circuit, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. Attorney General Jeff SESSIONS; Chief Justice Sonny Hornsby; Secretary of State Billy Joe Camp; Walk
Decision Date14 June 1995

J. Richard Cohen, Elizabeth Johnson, Montgomery, AL, for appellants.

James C. Wood, Simon, Wood & Crane, Mobile, AL, Fournier J. Gale, III, Maynard, Cooper, Frierson & Gale, Birmingham, AL, David R. Boyd, Balch & Bingham, Susan E. Russ, Miller, Hamilton, Snider & Odom, Montgomery, AL, for Noonan.

Michael J. Bowers, Atty. Gen., David Walbert, Atlanta, GA, for amicus, State of Georgia.

On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama.

Before TJOFLAT, Chief Judge, KRAVITCH, HATCHETT, ANDERSON, EDMONDSON, COX, BIRCH and BLACK, Circuit Judges. *

TJOFLAT, Chief Judge:

Appellant Southern Christian Leadership Conference ("SCLC") and the individual appellants are the class representative of the black voters in Alabama. 1 They appeal the district court's decision, Southern Christian Leadership Conference ("SCLC") v. Evans, 785 F.Supp. 1469 (M.D.Ala.1992), reached following a bench trial, rejecting their claim that Alabama's system for electing circuit and district judges in ten of Alabama's judicial circuits affords the black voters in those circuits, on account of their race, "less opportunity ... to participate in the political process" than other members of the electorate are afforded in violation of section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1973 (1988). 2 The district court rejected appellants' claim on two grounds. First, appellants' opportunity to participate in the election of the judges in question is not being abridged on account of their race. Second, the remedies they seek are not feasible alternatives to the electoral systems presently in place. We affirm.

I.
A.

Alabama has a "unified judicial system" of trial and appellate courts. The trial courts of general jurisdiction are the circuit courts, and the district courts are courts of limited jurisdiction. Ala.Code Sec. 12-1-2 (1986). Currently there are forty judicial circuits in Alabama, each designated by a number; each circuit contains one or more counties. See id. Sec. 12-11-2 (Supp.1993). 3 There is a separate district court within each county. 4 Id. Sec. 12-12-1 (1986).

Appellants challenge the system for electing circuit judges in the following ten judicial circuits:

Fourth Circuit--Bibb, Dallas, Hale, Perry, and Wilcox Counties

Fifth Circuit--Chambers, Macon, Randolph, and Tallapoosa Counties

Sixth Circuit--Tuscaloosa County

Seventh Circuit--Calhoun and Cleburne Counties

Tenth Circuit--Jefferson County

Thirteenth Circuit--Mobile County

Fifteenth Circuit--Montgomery County

Twentieth Circuit--Henry and Houston Counties

Twenty-Third Circuit--Madison County

Twenty-Sixth Circuit--Russell County

The appellants also challenge the district court election systems in Jefferson, Mobile, Montgomery, and Russell Counties. The challenged circuits include a majority of the state's population and represent both urban and rural areas within Alabama. Basic demographic information about these circuits and districts 5 is summarized in the following chart.

Nine counties in Alabama have a black majority voting age population: Bullock, Dallas, Greene, Hale, Lowndes, Macon, Perry, Sumter, and Wilcox. These counties are currently grouped into five separate judicial circuits. Only one of the five circuits, the Seventeenth, has a black majority of the voting age population. 6

Judicial elections in Alabama are partisan. See id. Sec. 17-7-1 (Supp.1993). Judges on Alabama's trial courts are elected at-large from their circuits or districts. Id. Sec. 17-2-2. One of the challenged circuits has twenty-four circuit judges while others have as few as two. Each county, however, has at least one district judge. Candidates for judicial office in circuits or districts with more than one judge must run for a particular position (a "post") on the ballot; this is known as a numbered place system.

The Governor has the authority to fill midterm judicial vacancies, such as those that occur when a sitting judge dies, resigns, retires, or is removed from office. Ala. Const. amend. 328, Sec. 6.14. This power of appointment is limited in four of the challenged circuits by judicial nominating commissions 7 that solicit candidates, review their credentials, and certify a list of names to the Governor. In all four of these circuits, the Governor must appoint one of the people from the list to the vacant position. These four circuits contain forty-five of the sixty-six challenged circuit judgeships.

B.

Alabama's system of at-large election of circuit court judges dates from 1850 when article V, section 12 of Alabama's 1819 Constitution was amended to require the General Assembly to "provide by law for the election of judges of the Circuit Courts by the qualified electors of their circuits respectively." Ala. Const. amend. 3 (1850). The 1865 Constitution required that "judges of the circuit and probate courts, and of such other inferior courts as may be by law established, shall be elected by the qualified electors of the respective counties, cities, or districts for which such courts may be established." Ala. Const. art. VI, Sec. 11 (1865). Similar provisions were retained in the 1875 and 1901 Constitutions. See Ala. Const. art. VI, Sec. 12 (1875); Ala. Const. art. VI, Sec. 152 (1901). In 1973, Amendment 328, which is known as the Judicial Article, repealed article VI of the 1901 Constitution and provided that "[a]ll judges shall be elected by vote of the electors within the territorial jurisdiction of their respective courts." Ala. Const. amend. 328, Sec. 6.13 (1973). 8 It is section 6.13 that currently requires at-large elections of circuit and district judges.

Similarly, Alabama has a long history of employing a numbered place system. The

State first enacted statewide legislation requiring the use of at-large numbered positions for the election of circuit judges in 1927. At that time, there were no black attorneys in Alabama, and blacks were largely disfranchised. The historical context of the 1927 law reveals that the measure was promoted by conservative elements within the Democratic Party who felt threatened by victories in the 1926 elections by rival Progressive/Prohibitionist/Ku Klux Klan factions. In 1961, the Alabama Legislature passed Act 221, which expanded the use of numbered places to elect all multimember offices. Because judges were already elected under an at-large numbered place system, Act 221 did not change the judicial electoral process. The Judicial Article and reform movement of the 1970s also did not attempt changes from a popularly elected judiciary. Moving toward an appointment system would have garnered opposition from many Alabamians and would have lead to the defeat of the Judicial Article because enactment required voter approval. SCLC v. Evans, 785 F.Supp. at 1490.

C.

Judges must be licensed to practice law in Alabama. Ala. Const. amend. 328, Sec. 6.07. Records of the Alabama State Bar...

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