Alabama judge faces ethics charges over her opposition to death penalty cases

Published 8:56 pm Monday, November 15, 2021

An Alabama judge accused of violating judicial rules with her comments and actions in death penalty cases — including a 2016 scathing order that listed concerns with how capital punishment is decided— went before a disciplinary court Monday on ethics charges.=

Jefferson County Circuit Judge Tracie Todd, who ruled the state’s capital punishment law unconstitutional five years ago, is accused of abandoning the “detachment and neutrality” required of a judge. She is also accused of being improperly embroiled in the issue of the death penalty and of flouting state appellate court precedent and directives.

Todd has been was suspended with pay and could be removed from office if convicted.

The state’s Judicial Inquiry Commission, which investigates complaints against judges, accused her of wrongdoing in April. The nine-member Court of the Judiciary is hearing the case in a trial-like proceeding and will decide if she should remain on the bench or be removed.

In opening arguments Monday, Todd’s lawyer said her actions in death penalty cases were based on her understanding of a then-recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling. A commission attorney, though, argued Todd demonstrated a pattern of behavior that showed she was not acting with the neutrality required of a judge.

“Judge Todd abandoned her judicial role to become an advocate,” commission attorney Elizabeth Bern told the nine-judge panel in opening statements.

Todd’s attorney, Emory Anthony, said the judge followed her understanding of the law in ruling the state’s old death penalty sentencing scheme unconstitutional. He disputed that Todd was a death penalty opponent, noting that she had handed down a death sentence previously.

“The only thing she attempted to do was her job,” Anthony told the court. He suggested the case was fueled by dislike of Todd in the district attorney’s office.

Todd handles cases in Alabama’s most populous county around Birmingham. She made national news in 2016 when she ruled the state’s death penalty sentencing procedure was unconstitutional and barred prosecutors from seeking the death penalty against four men charged in three killings. Her ruling was later overturned.

Much of the early testimony centered on Todd’s decision that year and the aftermath.

After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of Florida’s capital punishment sentence because it gave jurors an insufficient role in deciding whether defendants should be put to death, Todd held a hearing on defense lawyer motions arguing Alabama’s system was similarly unconstitutional.

A deputy district attorney testified that immediately at the conclusion of the hearing, Todd began reading her 28-page ruling which indicated she had already decided the matter before calling the hearing.

However, Todd’s attorney noted in cross-examination that the two sides had made court filings on the issue before the hearing, which gave her time and material to draw conclusions.

In her ruling, Todd said Alabama’s sentencing system was unconstitutional and said the death penalty system had been tainted by politics that encouraged judges to impose death sentences over a jury’s recommendation. Alabama was one of the last states to allow judicial override. The law has since been changed to require judges to follow a jurors’ sentence recommendation.

“It is clear, from here on the front line, that Alabama’s judiciary has unequivocally been hijacked by partisan interests and unlawful legislative neglect,” Todd wrote in 2016.

An attorney for the commission noted that her ruling contained multiple criticisms of the state’s death penalty law that were outside the scope of the issue at hand and referenced material and media articles not introduced at the hearing. She then gave media interviews afterward.

The commission also accused Todd of failing to respect and follow clear directives and rulings of the appellate courts. In one instance she acted in a case by scheduling a conference even after she was directed to recuse by the appellate court.

In 2018, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals urged that Todd be investigated for “her seemingly cavalier disregard for the orders of this court and the Alabama Supreme Court.”

Todd is a Democrat who first took office in 2013. The complaint that resulted in judicial ethics charges was filed by a former Republican district attorney, court documents showed.

The trial is expected to take several days.