Donald V. Watkins
Alabama Appellate Courts: Still All-White in 2021
By: Donald V. Watkins
Copyrighted and Published on June 6, 2021
An Editorial Opinion
In the aftermath of former police officer Derek Chauvin's April conviction in the George Floyd murder case, America has begun to explore anew, the long, well-documented, ugly, violent, and widespread racism blacks have experienced in America since we arrived here four hundred years ago as slaves. For many Americans of interracial goodwill, we are now "awakened" as a nation on the subject of race.
In this awakened state, most white Americans today learned for the first time on Memorial Day weekend (via a powerful and enlightening CNN documentary last Sunday) that freed African American slaves founded a national finance and commerce center called "Black Wall Street" in 1906 in the Greenwood Community of Tulsa, Oklahoma, only to have it burned to the ground in 1921 by a violent white mob that killed at least 300 black Greenwood residents and destroyed all of its homes, schools, public library, businesses, banks, churches, automobiles, and private airplanes. To this day, the Tulsa Race Massacre is recognized as the worst case of domestic terrorism on American soil.
Yet, not a single white Tulsa rioter was prosecuted for the murders and/or the massive destruction of property on "Black Wall Street." Not one dollar was paid by insurance companies to the Greenwood entrepreneurs and property owners who lost everything they owned. "Black Wall Street" was never financially rescued or revived by the federal and Oklahoma state governments. Indeed, up until the 1980s, blacks in Oklahoma and elsewhere in America were openly denied access to the nation's mainstream capital markets, financial institutions, and insurance carriers.
America's Most Prominent Bastion of White Racism Today
In 2021, one hundred years after the Tulsa Race Massacre, a prominent bastion of in-your-face white racism still exits in America, and it continues to undermine the public trust in our judicial institutions. This modern-day bastion of racism is found within the all-white membership structure of the Alabama Supreme Court, Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, and Alabama Court of Civil Appeals in a state that is 26.8% black.
These three appellate courts were all-white when I became a lawyer in Alabama in 1973 and they are still all-white 48 years later. During the past two decades, the state of Alabama has made no effort to alter the all-white makeup of these courts. In fact, the white oligarchy that runs Alabama and controls its future loves the all-white status of these appellate courts. This status ensures white-rule in Alabama's state court system.
What is worse, no member of these three courts has spoken out against this modern-day version of judicial apartheid. Additionally, no member of the state's all-white state-wide constitutional offices or legislative branches has condemned this judicial apartheid, either.
Likewise, the Alabama Bar Association is unwilling to criticize these all-white appellate courts because the organization was created to assist the Alabama Supreme Court in the exercise of the Court's inherent jurisdiction to admit attorneys to the practice of law in Alabama and to suspend or disbar them. In fact, the Bar Association owes its very existence to the Alabama Supreme Court.
Finally, no federal judge has sought to dismantle this bastion of ironclad white-rule over 26.8% of Alabama's black citizenry. The one thing that unites the all-white Alabama appellate court judges with their colleagues on the federal bench in the state is their collective indifference to the plight of black Alabamians. Both of these judicial bodies practice the political doctrine of "benign neglect" when it comes to enforcing the constitutional rights of Alabama's black citizens.
In the eyes of many black Alabamians, the three Alabama appellate courts appear to function much like a resurrected version of the old White Citizens’ Council that operated in Alabama from 1963 to 1975. The Council was charged with using the organs of government to (a) maintain control and dominion over black Alabamians and (b) thwart their quest for social, economic, and criminal justice. Since the end of the Civil War in 1865, Alabama has proudly boasted that it is the "Heart of Dixie" and "Cradle of the Confederacy," complete with all that these antebellum themes entail.
None of the three Alabama appellate courts has a track record of safeguarding the constitutional rights of African American criminal defendants or civil litigants. All of them excel at using Southern-style intellectual acumen and creative judicial activism to undermine basic rights guaranteed to blacks (and other minorities) under the U.S. Constitution, as declared in judicial decisions rendered by the U.S. Supreme Court. None of these Alabama appellate courts has ever lifted a finger to save black defendants who were wrongfully convicted of capital offenses and sentenced to death. In a number of cases, DNA and other indisputable forensic evidence later confirmed that some of these defendants were actually innocent of the crimes charged.
Since the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, there have only been three black members of the Alabama Supreme Court. Justice Oscar Adams served on the Court from October 10, 1980 to October 31, 1993. Justice Ralph Cook served from 1993 to January 2001. Justice John England served from September 1994 to January 2001. No black Justice has been appointed or elected to the Alabama Supreme Court since 2001.
The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and the Court of Civil Appeals have never had black judges. Lately, the Court of Criminal Appeals has used its judicial platform to browbeat black trial judges like Jefferson County Circuit Judge Tracie Todd who have strived to follow the U.S. Supreme Court's most recent decisions in death penalty cases, rather than the off-base and politically motivated death penalty rulings issued by the Alabama Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals. The Alabama Bar Association did not rise in defense of Judge Todd, but I felt compelled to do so in an article published on May 3, 2021.
After enduring all-white appellate courts in Alabama for the past 20 years, I have decided that if I do not speak up for the inclusion of black judges on the Alabama Supreme Court, Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, and Alabama Court of Civil Appeals, nobody else will do so. My editorial opinion on this subject will likely upset the all-white members of these three Alabama appellate courts, as well as the oligarchy they serve, because these judges are very comfortable in their exclusive, protected, white judicial bubble within a 26.8% black state.
Time will tell. Let us see.
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