I first met Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore back in 1997 on a drive through Gadsden, a sleepy southern burg 56 miles north of Birmingham. Moore was only a circuit judge back then but he’d already gotten famous for refusing to take down a plaque from his courtroom walls that listed the Ten Commandments. I expected some hayseed country judge; what I found was a very sharp guy who could recite lengthy passages of law by heart and was obviously meant for greater things. Eighteen years later, he’s at the heart of a battle over whether state judges should grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples when the state constitution forbids it.
The Los Angeles Times recently weighed in on the debate through the eyes of a probate judge caught in the middle of the federal-state tussle. Its take on the situation was so one-sided, it fell over about halfway through. It starts:
About 9 o'clock the night of Feb. 8, Judge Tim Russell felt his phone vibrate, which seemed strange at that hour. It was his work phone.
He and his wife, Sandy, had just finished the long drive from Birmingham, Ala., where they visited family, back home to Baldwin County, on the Gulf of Mexico. While she readied for bed, he stood reading an email from Roy Moore, the chief justice of Alabama's Supreme Court.
In less than 12 hours, Russell and other county judges were to start granting marriage licenses to all couples, whether gay or straight.
Russell finished reading the message and held it out to his wife.
"My God," he said.
Russell lives with one foot in the past and one in the present, and talks as easily about either.
Driving to lunch recently, he casually recalled his maternal grandmother of 13 generations ago, Rebecca Nurse. She was hanged in 1692 for practicing witchcraft, and became a central character in Arthur Miller's play "The Crucible."
The modern relevance of that story isn't lost on Russell. "I think a great deal about our freedoms," he said.
Religious freedoms, he said. And also equality under the law.
So here we have the Salem witch trials brought up as a hint of the direction where religious belief can go.
Sure enough, a few paragraphs later we hear of Confederate soldiers polluting the local water source. I’m surprised the writer didn’t bring up the Klan. It did bring up Moore’s ill-fated installation of a 5,280-pound Ten Commandments monument in the rotunda of the state judicial building in 2001 and how he was forced from office in 2003 after he defied a federal judge’s order to remove it. The Times says:
A special judicial court had removed Moore from his position after that showdown, but the people of Alabama immediately elected him back into it.
Excuse me? Moore spent nine years in exile. He sought the Republican nomination for state governorship in 2006 but lost badly to the incumbent in the primaries. He tried again in 2009 and again bombed in the primaries. He talked in 2011 of running for president but that got nowhere. Only in 2012 when he announced he’d try for his old position as chief justice did he win. So, what is the meaning of "immediately"?
The article goes on to describe Russell’s consternation:
Russell felt pulled in two directions: He feared that he would run afoul of the Alabama Constitution if he issued licenses to gay couples. And he worried he’d break the U.S. Constitution if he didn’t.
By this point, one wonders: Did anyone edit this piece? The U.S. Constitution has no provision for same-sex marriage unless the U.S. Supreme Court decides it does and they haven’t ruled on this yet.
Further down, the knives come out:
Moore was content, or even eager, to martyr himself as a judge because he has his eye on higher elected positions. He did not return calls for comment.
Russell's openness on this point reveals just how little faith the lower judges have in Moore's motivation: "Oh yeah," he said. "He's looking for either a governorship or senatorship."
Who says Moore has his eye on a higher office? Only Russell? I see no other sources listed. Moore is 68 years old. The chance of him trying for anything else after a decade of failed attempts is incredibly slim. Mind you, other than the perfunctory phone calls to Moore’s office, the reporter does not quote one person in Moore’s defense.
Here we go again: You have to make an attempt to get articulate opinion on both sides. If Moore won’t talk, he has friends that will. Basic Journalism 101, folks.
The article veers in a bizarre direction at the end where it talks about Russell’s faith:
Beyond those decisions, though -- beyond legalities -- there's also the question of his Catholicism, Russell said. Previously religion guided his thinking on marriage: It's between one man and one woman, he believed.
But the current debate has forced Russell to do to himself what he does to couples and estates and other subjects every day: He is dividing his own mind. Separating the biblical and the constitutional. Cleaving the opinions he holds in his church pew from the ones he issues from his courthouse bench.
Is it possible to separate the two entities completely? One sort of union for the church and another for the state. One for religion and one for the law. Would he support that?
Again, same-sex marriage is not “constitutional” at this point and it is inaccurate to say it is. And some Catholics have a word for a "personally opposed" fellow church members who believe in church doctrine for their private lives but cave when it comes to applying it in a public forum. It’s called being a hypocrite. At this point, the editors of the Times are openly cheer leading for this cafeteria approach to Catholic life. Perhaps the current editors in Los Angeles should click here and read some wisdom from an earlier editor?
I finished this piece feeling no respect for Tim Russell, as his views were presented by The Times. The premise of the article was interesting but the result belongs in the trash.