Friday, April 16, 2021

Alabama judge suspended for 'predisposition' against the death penalty

A judge in Birmingham, Alabama, has been suspended with pay after the Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission alleged that she showed an apparent predisposition against the death penalty, ignored appellate directives, and showed a lack of appropriate demeanor to prosecutors, reported the ABA Journal.

Judge Tracie Todd’s legal errors are part of a continuing pattern with the capacity to harm public confidence in the judicial process, particularly with regards to death penalty issues, according to the commission’s April 6 complaint.

The ethics complaint alleges abuse of judicial power and “abandonment of the judicial role of detachment and neutrality.” The allegations concern mostly incidents from 2014 through 2018 in matters involving the death penalty, prosecutors and personal vindication of her prior rulings and actions, the complaint says.

“This complaint is about a judge who continued to fail to respect and follow clear directives and rulings of the appellate courts,” the complaint says.

The death-penalty imbroglio began in March 2016, when Todd struck down Alabama’s capital sentencing scheme in which judges could impose the death penalty even when jurors recommended life without parole. Todd struck down the sentencing system as applied to four defendants.

The Alabama Supreme Court later upheld the judicial override system in October 2016. A state law passed in 2017 eliminated the judicial override system but allowed jurors to recommend the death penalty by a 10-2 vote.

Todd had ruled that judicial override was unconstitutional under the U.S. Supreme Court’s January 2016 decision, Hurst v. Florida, which struck down Florida’s death penalty scheme because it allowed judges, rather than juries, to find facts necessary to impose the death sentence. Todd then banned Alabama from seeking the death penalty.

The complaint says Todd’s order denied the state its right to seek the death penalty because her ruling only applied to judicial override cases, not cases in which jurors recommended the death penalty. Her order also “exhibited an apparent predisposition against the death penalty generally,” the ethics complaint says.

Todd’s order also cited secondary sources that she had independently collected, including information that judges are more likely to impose the death penalty during an elections cycle, and that unqualified lawyers were being appointed in capital cases based on campaign contributions. Those extraneous sources “violate a judge’s duty of detachment and neutrality,” the complaint says.

Todd’s order was released to the media, and she gave two interviews the same day that criticized partisan judicial elections, judicial override and attorney appointments based on campaign contributions. The comments also gave the appearance of a preconceived bias against the death penalty, the complaint says.

She also denied prosecution motions to recuse in two other death penalty cases, saying the motions were moot after Alabama eliminated the override system. But the ethics complaint noted an appellate ruling finding that the new law did not apply retroactively.

An appeals court ordered Todd to recuse herself in the cases. She nonetheless ordered a status conference in one case and then said she hadn’t received notice of the appeals court’s judgment.

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