By Devin Carter
A fight for racial justice has erupted in Alabama. In July 2022 the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama (ACLU-AL), alongside the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), filed a lawsuit on behalf of Tiara Hudson, challenging the constitutionality of a decision by the Alabama Judicial Resources Allocation Commission (JRAC) to move a judgeship from the racially diverse Jefferson County to the majority-white Madison County. The JRAC’s vote to move the judgeship happened on the heels of Tiara Hudson’s victory in the Democratic primary election for the office. With no opponent in the general election, Hudson was slated to succeed Judge Clyde Jones to the bench. After Hudson’s primary victory, but before the general election, Judge Jones announced his immediate retirement, creating a vacancy in the seat that Hudson hoped to fill. But rather than fill the vacancy in Jefferson County, the JRAC decided to exercise powers delegated to it by the Alabama legislature to relocate the judgeship to Madison County, thus depriving Hudson of a judgeship and the people of Jefferson County of a judgeship position.
The JRAC’s vote to move the judgeship was split along racial lines, with white voters voting for the relocation and Black voters in opposition. Once the decision was made public, it was met with backlash, as members of the public expressed frustration that a county with a substantial Black population would lose a valuable resource to a majority-white county. The decision also received biting criticism from voting rights advocates, who similarly decried the relocation for depriving the citizens of Jefferson County of fair representation in the judiciary. Hudson released a statement declaring that the rights of people of color to serve their communities must be protected and explained that the sorts of barriers that have been erected to prevent her, and others, from doing so must be eliminated.
Hudson’s words stretch beyond the facts of her own dispute and are applicable to much of the state’s historical voter suppression tactics: the now-unconstitutional Jim Crow-era literacy tests and poll taxes, as well as current controversies such as the state’s voter ID requirement, felony disenfranchisement, and a lack of early voting. These laws have had a disproportionately negative impact on the ability of minority voters to have their political voices heard. This controversy surrounding the transfer of the judgeship could be viewed as a continuation of efforts to dilute the political power of minority voters. Bolstering this view is the fact that, despite the JRAC having possessed the authority to reallocate judgeships since its inception in 2017, it had not exercised this power until now, which stripped a racially mixed jurisdiction of a judgeship shortly before a Black woman was due to fill the seat. In response to these allegations, the JRAC has argued that Jefferson County had an excess of judges, and that the transfer would provide Madison County with a judgeship that it needed.
Hudson’s complaint argued that the power to reallocate vacant judgeships was an unconstitutional delegation of authority from Alabama’s legislature to the commission, and that the governor’s subsequent appointment of a new judge in Madison County was, therefore, unconstitutional. Despite Hudson’s efforts, as well as those of the ACLU-AL and SPLC, an Alabama judge dismissed the case in August 2022. The judge justified the dismissal by claiming that Hudson lacked the standing to sue; the judge further determined that the Alabama legislature had properly delegated its authority when it gave the JRAC the power to reallocate vacant judgeships. Hudson, the ACLU-AL, and SLPC have filed a notice of appeal. ACLU-AL’s legal director, Tish Gotell Faulks, explained that she was seeking clarification regarding the way that judicial resources would be distributed across each of the state’s jurisdictions so that every person in Alabama had access to judges and other legal resources.