Judicial overreach is no more

Published 9:32 pm Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. These words and or concept were initiated by Theodore Parker in the 1850s, enlarged by others in subsequent years, and made famous by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s. I want to share a recent example of the long arc of the moral universe’s bending toward justice.

Last week, Alabama’s newly ascended Gov. Kay Ivey signed a law that ended judicial override in Alabama. I have vigorously fought the unjustness of the Alabama death penalty for many years. I first introduced legislation to address this injustice in the year 2000. It proposed a three-year moratorium on all executions while the Alabama Legislature determined how to make capital punishment less infected by poverty, race, gender, inadequate legal representation, etc. I have introduced similar legislation virtually every year for 17 years. I have also introduced other legislation aimed at the unjustness of the death penalty. One of those bills would prevent what is known as judicial override. None of these bills passed.

Alabama was the only state still allowing a judge to override a jury’s verdict of life imprisonment without parole to impose a sentence of death. Nearly one-fourth of the human beings on Alabama’s death row are there by virtue of judicial override. In other words, after twelve citizens heard all the evidence in a death penalty case and rendered a verdict for life imprisonment without parole, a single judge could disregard the jury’s verdict and impose the death penalty.  A number of judges confidentially told me how much they wanted judicial override removed because district attorneys often waged media campaigns to set aside life without parole verdicts to impose the death penalty. These judges were caught between a rock and a hard place. After introducing the judicial override bill 11 times over a period of 11 years, I saw the odds of passage as very long with a Republican controlled legislature. Even after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down similar laws in other states, I still perceived passage as unlikely in Alabama. But new champions arose.

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Sen. Dick Brewbaker, a white Republican from Montgomery, decided to introduce a similar judicial override bill. He asked if I minded. I said that not only did I not mind; I urged him to take the judicial override baton and run with God speed. Lo and behold, he ran well, carrying the judicial override baton (bill) through the Alabama Senate. Then Rep. Chris England, an African American from Tuscaloosa, ran well, carrying the judicial override baton (bill) through the Alabama House. Then Gov. Kay Ivey signed the bill into law.  Now that the Alabama Legislature, joined by the governor, has declared that judicial override is unfair, unjust and unlawful, it is reasonable, fair and just that the sentences of those on death row because of judicial override now have those sentences overrode to life without parole.  Sometimes it’s hard to progress unless we look back over time. Too often we fail to see progress because we look just at the present or the immediate past. And when we look ahead, we see more problems than progress. Every now and then we have to look at the long are of the moral universe.