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Alabama's Chief Justice Faces Removal From The Bench


All right, an opponent of same-sex marriage has his day in court today. Alabama's Chief Justice Roy Moore is fighting to keep his job. He's a religious conservative. He's been accused of judicial ethics violations after defying the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling legalizing same-sex marriage. Justice Moore was suspended from the bench. He'll make a case for those charges to be dropped at a hearing today as NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Chief Justice Roy Moore will appear before the Alabama Court of the Judiciary to argue he should not be tried on ethics charges. In a news conference days before he was suspended in May, Moore, a Republican, challenged allegations he had violated his office.


ROY MOORE: This is not about any wrongdoing I've done. This is not about ethics. This is about marriage.

ELLIOTT: At issue is an order in which Moore told Alabama probate judges not to issue any marriage license contrary to Alabama's ban on gay marriage. The problem is he issued that order after the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark ruling that guaranteed the right to marry to same-sex couples. The Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission is accusing Moore of several violations, including failing to act with impartiality, independence and integrity and failing to respect and comply with the law.

MAT STAVER: The chief justice didn't do anything wrong.

ELLIOTT: Attorney Mat Staver is representing Moore. Staver is founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, an Orlando-based group that litigates conservative Christian causes. He says Moore wasn't telling local judges to disobey the Supreme Court, only that there remained a conflict between the federal ruling and state court orders.

STAVER: The problem is is when the U.S. Supreme Court issues this sweeping opinion with no interim opportunity for states to implement it and consider how they're going to protect religious liberty. You have these collisions of unprecedented proportions.

ELLIOTT: The results in Alabama has been a patchwork of access to marriage for gay and lesbian couples. While most of the state's probate offices are granting licenses to same-sex couples, some have gotten out of the marriage business altogether. Eva Kendrick is state manager for the LGBT advocacy group Human Rights Campaign.

EVA KENDRICK: Justice Moore created an environment in which it seemed like probate judges were directly discriminating against same-sex couples.

ELLIOTT: Kendrick says couples still can't get marriage licenses in 12 Alabama counties, mostly in rural parts of the state. Even before the Supreme Court ruling, Moore had been issuing orders in conflict with a Mobile federal judge in a same-sex marriage case. At the time, Moore told NPR that it was not a matter for the federal courts.

MOORE: This power to define marriage is not given to the federal government. It is reserved to the states and to the people.

ELLIOTT: That language sounds familiar to Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery.

RICHARD COHEN: He bred contempt and disrespect for the federal courts. And it's a little bit of a throwback to George Wallace. You know, I'm going to stand tall against the federal courts. In Wallace's era, it was race. In Moore's era, you know, it's religion.

ELLIOTT: Moore has been in a standoff with the federal judiciary over his religious beliefs before.


MOORE: I'm pleased to present this monument...

ELLIOTT: He was ousted on ethics charges back in 2003, after defying a federal court order to remove a giant Ten Commandments monument from the state judicial building.


MOORE: And I will never, never deny the God upon whom our laws and our country depend...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Shouting) Hallelujah.


ELLIOTT: Thousands rallied in his support, and he was later re-elected as Alabama chief justice. If convicted on these ethics charges, Moore would again be removed from office. He'd be too old to run for chief justice again, but nothing would prevent him from seeking higher office, such as governor. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Montgomery. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
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