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  • Writer's pictureDonald V. Watkins

Battling Judicial Apartheid in Alabama

Updated: Dec 26, 2021

By: Donald V. Watkins

Copyrighted and Published on December 13, 2021

Alabama has nineteen appellate court justices and judges. All of them are white. As explained below, these courts have been all-white for a very long time.

Blacks in Alabama hold appointed and/or elected judgeships in cities and counties where they constitute the majority population. The Alabama constitution and state laws refer to these judgeships as "inferior" courts.

As the recent case of Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Tracie A. Todd demonstrated to all blacks in Alabama, a duly elected black circuit court judge can be removed from the bench whenever his/her judicial rulings displease the state's all-white appellate court judges. Todd was permanently removed from the bench in 2021 solely because she followed established U.S. Supreme Court rulings governing death penalty cases, rather than the legally erroneous and racially discriminatory decisions of the all-white Alabama Supreme Court on this subject.

I characterize Alabama's state court system as a modern-day form of judicial apartheid, which I find to be unconscionable in the 21st century.

Why Judicial Apartheid Must Be Dismantled

All nine justices on the Alabama Supreme Court are white. All five judges on the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals are white. And, all five judges on the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals are white.

According to the 2020 census, Alabama has a 25.6% black population, a 26.25% black voting age population, and 26.39% black registered voters. Yet, no black has served on the Alabama's appellate courts since Associate Supreme Court Justice John England was defeated in the November 2000 general elections.

In the 146-year history of Alabama's appellate courts, only three blacks -- Oscar Adams, Ralph Cook, and England -- have served on the state's appellate courts. All three men served as Associate Justices on the Alabama Supreme Court. Sadly, their combined tenure on the bench was limited to a service period from 1982 to January of 2001 -- only 19 years.

No black has ever served as a judge on the state's courts of civil and criminal appeals.

What is more, none of the five gubernatorial appointments to the state's appellate courts since 2001 has been black. In keeping with tradition, all of them have been white males.

Alabama's At-Large Election System Was Designed to Purposefully Discriminate Against Blacks

The apparatus for selecting justices and judges to Alabama's appellate courts and ensuring that the candidates elected to the judicial bench would be all-white was birthed with the "Redeemer" Constitution of 1875. This constitution signaled an open return to "white supremacy."

A system of at-large elections and gubernatorial appointments for many local and statewide offices, including judgeships on the state's appellate courts, was specifically designed to restore "white supremacy" after white southerners witnessed a post-Civil War Reconstruction period from 1867 to 1870 that resulted in significant black voter participation and office-holding, from local government positions, to legislative seats, to Congressional offices.

Delegates to the 1875 "Redeemer" constitutional convention viewed the at-large election scheme as the best vehicle to ensure that white bloc voting would foreclose the opportunity for black voters to elect candidates of their choice to appellate judgeships and other key offices, and they openly said so.

This at-large election system carried forward to the Constitution of 1901. Throughout the constitutional convention of 1901, white Alabama politicians were obsessed with concerns over black voting power and office-holding. As a result, racial segregation was mandated in all aspects of life in the 1901 constitution and a multitude of state statutes that followed it.

In 1986, a federal court in Alabama described the state's legally enforced racial apartheid this way: Alabama had an "unrelenting historical agenda, spanning from the late 1880s to the 1980s, to keep its black citizens economically, socially, and politically downtrodden, from the cradle to the grave."

As expected, the passage of time did not transform the state's unconstitutional appellate court judgeship selection system into a constitutional one.

The Time for a Change is Now

I am using my appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court (and probably to the U.S. Supreme Court) in the case of Donald V. Watkins and Donald V. Watkins, P.C. v. Matrix, LLC and Joseph W. Perkins, Jr., to challenge the at-large election apparatus that has produced an all-white Alabama Supreme Court since 2001. This case involves an appeal from a $1.5 million summary judgment in favor of Matrix and Joe Perkins in a defamation case where I asserted my First Amendment "freedom of speech" and "freedom of press" rights under the 1964 landmark case of New York Times v. Sullivan and its progeny.

In 2017, I used my online media platform and journalistic skills to seek justice for a 19-year-old University of Alabama honors student named Megan Rondini after she committed suicide in 2016 because the Tuscaloosa man she accused of raping her escaped criminal justice. It took years of persistent reporting on the state's flawed criminal justice system before all of the individuals and entities responsible for Megan Rondini's death settled with her estate in its wrongful death case. T.J. Bunn, Jr., the designated "rape suspect" in Megan's case, finally settled with Rondini's estate in September of 2021.

Students of history will remember that New York Times v. Sullivan also arose from a defamation case filed in an Alabama state court six decades ago. Montgomery Police Commissioner L. B. Sullivan sued the New York Times claiming that he had been defamed in a full page advertisement in the Times titled, "Heed Their Rising Voices." The advertisement criticized a "wave of terror" against civil rights demonstrations in the South led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Most of the assertions in the advertisement were accurate; a few were not.

Segregationist Governor John Patterson joined the lawsuit and added Dr. King and four other prominent black ministers as defendants, even though they did not prepare the advertisement or cause it to be published. The plaintiffs were awarded $500,000 by an all-white jury. The white trial court judge allowed the jury verdict stand. On appeal, the all-white Alabama Supreme Court upheld the jury verdict against the defendants.

On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the judgment and established the bedrock principle that plaintiffs in defamation cases who are "public officials" or "public figures" must plead and prove that the writer and publisher of the alleged defamatory statements acted with "actual malice" or a "reckless disregard for the truth" of the statements that were published.

New York Times v. Sullivan is still the law of the land in First Amendment cases. However, it was not followed by a Governor Robert Bentley-appointed Tuscaloosa judge in my case, who is white. On August 20, 2021, this judge awarded $1.5 million to Perkins, who is white, and Matrix without conducting a trial and without finding "actual malice" or a "reckless disregard for the truth" regarding the statements I published in the Rondini articles.

Some of Birmingham's Black "Leaders" Have Accepted All-White Appellate Courts

Some of Birmingham's so-called black "leaders" have sent word to me through private channels that I should leave the all-white appellate court system alone. These "leaders" have apparently come to terms with living in a state that practices a modern-day form of judicial apartheid.

Like many of Birmingham's local black "leaders" in the 1950s and 60s, some of today's black "leaders" don't want to upset the white oligarchy that runs the state with an ironclad fist. They have totally succumbed to the whims of these oligarchs.

You probably know who some of these black "leaders" are. One runs the city of Birmingham. Another one represents Alabama's black community in Congress. And, some of them are members of the state legislature.

These "leaders" obviously lack the courage to tackle today's modern-day judicial apartheid in Alabama. They have convinced themselves that an all-white appellate court system is perfectly okay in a state with 26.39% black registered voters in 2021.

"Please Do Not Forget About Us"

Mr. Ramus Rhodes was my friend, mentor, and mop-closet "professor" in law school. He was a Stillman college-educated teacher who worked as the janitor at the University of Alabama's law school (Farrah Hall) while I was a student there from 1970 to 1973. I have written many articles about Mr. Rhodes and the positive impact he had on my life. This brilliant man single-handedly molded me into a fearless, well-prepared, focused, and effective warrior for social justice in Alabama's all-white, racially-hostile judicial system.

When white law students looked at Mr. Rhodes, they only saw a "mascot" who played the piano on the law school's float in the homecoming parade and who cleaned Farrah Hall for them with his "mop and bucket." When I looked at Mr. Rhodes, I saw an intellectual giant among men who provided for his family by working as a full-time janitor in the only job that was available to him. To this day, Mr. Rhodes is one of the smartest and greatest men I have ever met.

In return for the time, energy, and knowledge Mr. Rhodes lovingly shared with me, he only asked for one commitment on the day I graduated from law school in May of 1973 -- "Please do not forget about us." The "us" Mr. Rhodes was referring to were all of the black janitors, maids, ditch-diggers, grass-cutters, laundry workers, cafeteria workers, sanitation workers, maintenance workers, painters, plumbers, window-washers, street-sweepers, truck drivers, and laborers who worked on campus, as well as all of the blacks around Alabama who took pride in seeing the first group of black students -- Michael Figures, Booker Forte, Ronald Jackson, George Jones, and me -- desegregate the University's law school in a sea of racial hostility on campus.

Mr. Rhodes told me that his children, and their children, and tens of thousands of blacks in Alabama would benefit from my civil rights work for generations to come, but only if I did not forget my commitment to him. With tears streaming down his face, Mr. Rhodes shook my hand using both of his large hands. I felt the thick calluses on his hands; calluses that came from decades of mopping and cleaning Farrah Hall. I started crying, too. I looked Mr. Rhodes in the eyes and gave him my word that I would never forget him or "them," ever. I promised Mr. Rhodes that, as long as I had a breath of life left in me, I would fight with all of my strength, all of my intellect, and all of my heart to eliminate all forms of racial apartheid and discrimination in Alabama, no matter what personal price I had to pay for doing so.

I do not have words to describe the calm that came over Mr. Rhodes after he heard my words. He was at peace, and so was I. This was the last time I saw Mr. Rhodes alive. We left each other physically that beautiful day, but we bonded spiritually, forever.

For 48 years, I have been true to my word to Mr. Rhodes. Whether I was fighting with a group of civil rights activists, or fighting alone, I always carried on the fight to liberate blacks in Alabama economically, socially, and politically. And, I am not through fighting yet.

Alabama's appellate courts were all-white when I started my legal career in 1973, and they are all-white now. My spirit will not rest until I have dismantled this all-white bastion of judicial power in the state.

In my heart, I know that I am not fighting this battle alone. Mr. Rhodes and I are battling it together. He is in Heaven and I am imprisoned, but we are still fighting as hard as we can to include blacks in the forward-progress of the America we dreamed of on that fateful day in May of 1973 .

To the so-called black "leaders" in Birmingham, I say this: My conscience will not let me to look away and allow the present-day discriminatory effects of the "Redeemer" constitution of 1875 go on forever. "White supremacy" in the state's appellate court system is wrong and it must end now.

IMAGE: Alabama's Appellate Courts were all-white in 1966.

IMAGE: Alabama's Appellate Courts are still all-white in 2021.

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