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Top judge in Alabama suspended over order to block marriage licenses for same-sex couples

| Friday, Sept. 30, 2016, 11:00 p.m.
Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore’s suspension from office will last through 2019, at which point he will be too old to pursue the office again.
Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore’s suspension from office will last through 2019, at which point he will be too old to pursue the office again.

Alabama's top judge was suspended from the bench without pay for the remainder of his term, the state's Court of the Judiciary said Friday.

This is the second time Roy Moore, chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, has been effectively pulled from office, following his ouster in 2003 over his refusal to obey judicial rulings ordering him to remove a Ten Commandments statue from the Alabama Judicial Building.

A complaint was filed by the Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission charging Moore with violating judicial ethics in issuing an order in January stating that probate judges in the state “have a ministerial duty not to issue” marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

In a 50-page judgment Friday, two days after Moore appeared for a hearing in the case, Alabama's Court of the Judiciary found him guilty of failing to comply with the law, uphold the integrity of the court and “perform the duties of his office impartially.”

A group representing Moore in this case decried the court's decision as “an unbelievable violation of the law” for suspending the justice through the end of his current term in 2019, noting that he will be unable to seek reelection at that time because of state age restrictions.

“To suspend Chief Justice Moore for the rest of his term is the same as removal,” Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, said in a statement. Staver said that because the commission lacked the votes to fully remove him, “the majority instead chose to ignore the law and the rules.”

Moore, a father of four, was removed from office in 2003 after he refused to remove the Ten Commandments monument he had installed in a judicial building in Montgomery.

He was reelected to the bench in November 2012, and his six-year term runs through January 2019 — at which point he will be unable to run for another term, as Alabama has age limits preventing anyone 70 or older from being elected or appointed as a judge.

In the decision on Moore, the nine-member judiciary court said that a majority agreed with the Judicial Inquiry Commission that Moore should be removed from the bench but noted that only a unanimous ruling could pull him. Instead, the court unanimously decided to suspend him, which takes effect immediately.

The judiciary court's judgment said it was focusing on Moore's actions, rather than litigating same-sex marriage, which was ruled constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court last year. In its judgment, the judiciary court said that while some of its members “did not personally agree with” that Supreme Court ruling or think it “was well reasoned,” they could not reexamine that issue.

Instead, they pilloried Moore for his actions, saying that some of what he said in his January order was “incomplete, misleading, and manipulative” and writing that the order's purpose was to direct probate judges “to stop complying with binding federal law.”

The Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission had argued for removing Moore from office, saying that his actions were “even worse” than his behavior when he was removed in 2003, the judiciary court noted. The judgment Friday also said this was the second time Moore has been brought to this court.

Staver said that Liberty Counsel, a group best known for defending the Kentucky clerk who would not sign same-sex marriage licenses last year, would file an appeal of the decision with the Alabama Supreme Court. Liberty Counsel has previously criticized what it described as “politically motivated charges” against Moore, and Staver said the commission wanted the chief justice “to usurp the authority of the Alabama Supreme Court” by ordering all probate judges to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Moore's ouster was celebrated by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which filed ethics complaints against Moore.

“The Court of the Judiciary has done the citizens of Alabama a great service by suspending Roy Moore from the bench,” Richard Cohen, president of the SPLC, said in a statement. “He disgraced his office and undermined the integrity of the judiciary by putting his personal religious beliefs above his sworn duty to uphold the U.S. Constitution. Moore was elected to be a judge, not a preacher.”

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