Councilman Ben Little files suit seeking clarity on state law
by Laura Camper
Star Staff Writer
Jul 20, 2010 | 3781 views |  1 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A lawsuit reportedly filed Monday in federal court by Anniston City Councilman Ben Little takes aim at a simmering dispute between the state and federal governments, and, Little says, could combat what he calls corruption in the county courthouse.

Meanwhile, the suit could have far-reaching effects for the rest of the state.

Little is represented by civil rights attorney John Keeney Jr., of Washington, D.C.-based Hogan Lovells, in a case regarding a 1996 Alabama law requiring judges and lawyers disclose judicial campaign contributions of more than $2,000, and that judges recuse themselves from cases involving attorneys who have donated $2,000 or more to their campaigns.

Keeney said Monday the case had been filed and provided a case number he said was assigned by the federal district court for the District of Columbia. Court records searched online by The Star Monday did not yet show any record of the case.

Enforcing the law, Little told The Star Monday, may not stop what he sees as corruption in the courthouse. But it will help, he said.

“Money is buying injustice,” Little said. “(Enforcement of the law) will somewhat remove the appearance of evil or the appearance of impropriety, the appearance of injustice.”

Little has said that Anniston attorney Donald Stewart’s contributions to the campaigns of several local judges has influenced their rulings. He reiterated those claims Monday, saying people without Stewart’s resources can’t expect a fair hearing.

“That goes right to the core of corruption,” he said.

Attempts Monday to reach Stewart were unsuccessful.

If Little wins, it could end a power struggle between the state and the U.S. Department of Justice about whether the state has the authority to enforce the law before it has been reviewed by the department.

The complaint alleges the law needs pre-clearance by the Justice Department before it can be enforced. According to federal law, any law, including state laws, that may affect the voting rights of U.S. citizens must be pre-cleared by the Justice Department to ensure they do not violate the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The law in question has never received the Justice Department’s OK, and although it has not been enforced, the attorney general of Alabama has said the state has the right to enforce it.

“To have un-pre-cleared Alabama acts that are just sitting out there that could be enforced at any time against anyone, we think violates the federal voting act,” Keeney said.

Even the threat of enforcement could be affecting judicial campaigns the suit alleges, using Little as its proof.

The suit says Little “intends to contribute to the electoral campaigns of judicial candidates in the future but has refrained because he fears that the Alabama Act will be enforced and that his preferred judicial choices will not be allowed to preside over any litigation in which he is a party.”

Little said Monday he may or may not want to contribute, that is his right as a voter, but he does want to know if the law will be enforced if he does.

“We’ll clean up and clear up, once it is clarified,” Little said. “The first step is just to get it pre-cleared.”

According to the complaint, on March 7, 1996, shortly after the new law was to come into effect, the attorney general of Alabama wrote to the Department of Justice asking the law be reviewed for pre-clearance.

After the Justice Department requested more information, including how the law might affect the ability of black candidates in judicial races to raise contributions, the attorney general of Alabama withdrew the request saying the law did not have to be pre-cleared. In another letter dated July 30, 1996, the attorney general further wrote that he would enforce the law without pre-clearance.

In Little’s case, the complaint quotes state Supreme Court Justice Ralph Cook’s opinion that enforcement of the law is “in legal limbo.”

Little won’t say how he was referred to the Washington firm that filed the case, only that, “The Lord just sort of puts people in your path that can do some things that need to be done.”

Birmingham-based attorney Gene Rutledge, who has represented Little in several local lawsuits, is familiar with the law. He mentioned it last week when interviewed by The Star about an August 2009 campaign contribution by attorney Donald Stewart that eventually made its way to Calhoun County Circuit Judge Joel Laird.

“As long as the Justice Department and the attorney general are at loggerheads over this, they just won’t enforce the statute, which is just a way of keeping the contribution limits out of play in the judicial elections,” Rutledge had said. “I argued a case in front of the Alabama Supreme Court where one of the justices said, ‘Well let’s just say that statute is in repose,’ a legal principle with which I am not familiar.”

Contact staff writer Laura Camper at 256-235-3545.

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