Barely Legally

Confessions of a Moot Court Bailiff

Jurisprudence, Interesting Quirks of

Paige Williams, writing in The New Yorker, on Alabama judges with superpowers. Specifically, in Alabama, judges sitting specific courts can exercise the “Judicial Override.” An override is when a judge sentences a guilty defendant to death after a jury declines to impose the death penalty.

In effect, there are two opportunities for defendants to be sentenced to death: once by a jury and another time by a judge, sua sponte. In addition to all the usual concerns over the death penalty, like how black criminals are over 300% more likely to be executed than white criminals, and how there are hundreds of innocent people on death rows right now, there are extra problems with Alabama’s override system:

Every six years, Alabama elects circuit judges (who hear capital cases) and members of the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and the Alabama Supreme Court. Judicial overrides tend to spike in and around election years. According to a 2011 study by E.J.I., thirty per cent of the state’s death sentences in 2008, an election year, were imposed through override, compared with seven per cent the previous year.

I’m reminded of the Israeli parole boards, which grant fewer and fewer applications the longer their day goes. Humans aren’t machines, and seemingly trivial factors can have significant effects on our cognitive processes.

In this case, it’s not difficult to see the connection. Elected judges order the execution of more people in election years to make for cool TV:

Every election season for decades, television ads have shown aspiring judges posing with a hunting rifle or saying things like “I’ve looked killers in the eye and sentenced them to death.”

Yeah, that’s pretty horrifying.

It Gets Worse

Like most states, Alabama has egregiously loose campaign finance laws. When judges are elected (on the basis of sentencing people to die after a jury decided the opposite), there’s often an absurd campaign finance angle.

For example:

The state allows lawyers to contribute money to the campaigns of judges who may preside over their cases, and they do so routinely. Randy McNeill, the prosecutor who asked Judge Gordon to sentence Shonelle Jackson to death, had contributed to Gordon’s campaign fund.

McNeill, a deputy district attorney who some thought would make a good D.A., donated the money in April, 1991, with his wife, Margaret, who had clerked for Gordon. The McNeills gave fifty dollars, because Gordon, who was running unopposed, had personally capped contributions at that amount.

Oh, good. The judges have created their own campaign finance regulations, for money they accept from lawyers who argue in front of them.

You know, in other states, judges can’t even be Facebook friends with lawyers. Alabama’s letting them flat out exchange money. That’s an interesting twist on that whole “impartial judge” thing.