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Shades of the Past: Prominent Alabama attorneys question state commission’s decision to relocate a judicial seat nearly won by Black woman

As the Alabama Supreme Court considers hearing arguments on whether the transfer of a judgeship earlier this year from a large, majority-Black county to a smaller, less diverse one violates the state’s constitution, prominent members of the Magic City Bar Association are raising questions about the reallocation of the circuit court seat.

At issue is the vote by a commission created by Alabama’s Republican-dominated Legislature to permanently relocate the seat from Jefferson County, the most populous and diverse in the state, to majority-white Madison County. The vote, divided along racial lines, effectively dissolved the seat that Tiara Hudson, a veteran public defender, had been nominated to fill after a decisive win in a primary election.

The transfer means the state’s largest metropolitan area, where criminal cases are numerous and complex, has one fewer circuit court judge to hear such cases. It means the bench will not include Hudson, who would have been the first Black woman with a background as a public defender to serve on the bench anywhere in Alabama and the first public defender to serve as a circuit judge in Jefferson County. And it means that despite winning 54% of the primary vote, Hudson is left fighting in the courts for the position she was on track to win at the ballot box.

“What happened here is problematic,” said Ralph Cook, a retired associate justice of the Alabama Supreme Court and a former law school dean who in 1976 became the first Black person to be elected to a district judgeship in the state. “The judgeship should not have been transferred.”

Cook and others who are openly expressing their concerns about the transfer underline that their questions are rooted in analysis of the state constitution. No evidence has emerged that the decision to transfer the seat was racially motivated, and the chairman of the Judicial Resources Allocation Commission (JRAC) called the move a simple matter of filling a need in Madison County. Still, the dispute is opening the wounds of Alabama’s deeply troubled past, as questions swirl over whether the new commission is being deployed to deny diverse communities fair representation in the judiciary.

The Southern Poverty Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama are representing Hudson in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the transfer. In August, they appealed the case to the state Supreme Court after a circuit judge dismissed it.

The plaintiffs argue that the state constitution gives only the Legislature – not a commission created by it, unelected and unaccountable to voters – the authority to reallocate judgeships. The white members of the commission have made multiple attempts to transfer judgeships from Jefferson County to Madison County, but have been unsuccessful until now, according to the original complaint.

‘Red flag’

Ahmed Soussi, a voting rights staff attorney with the SPLC, called the delegation to the commission of the power to shift the seat from one county to another “a red flag for voting rights and specifically for the people to elect their local judges and other officeholders.”

The timing of the transfer, Soussi said, is especially problematic, coming as it did on the heels of an election in which the voters of Jefferson County cast ballots overwhelmingly for Hudson.

“The reason our system works is we vote people in to make decisions,” Soussi said. “When you give power to people not voted in by the electorate, like this commission, this is when you start having judgeships moved from a diverse county to a majority-white county.”

The Alabama Supreme Court can issue a decision based on the briefs filed in the case, or it can opt to hear oral arguments. A decision on which course of action it will take is not expected until after Jan. 1.

To Cook, who occupies a towering place among Black jurists in Alabama, having served for decades as one of a tiny handful of Black judges in the state, Hudson has a clear claim that the judgeship was improperly allocated. Not only is there no provision in the Alabama Constitution for a body like the JRAC, but it states that the Legislature shall not act to reallocate district judgeships at all unless the state Supreme Court recommends it do so.

“The question is, does [Hudson] have a claim that the judgeship was improperly allocated,” Cook said. “My position is that she does.”

The transfer of the judgeship, the first by the commission since it was created in 2017, has been met with overwhelming objections for months. At a JRAC meeting before the vote, members of the public testified that the move strips a county with a substantial Black population of a critical resource and gives that resource to a county where white people comprise nearly 70% of the population (as opposed to 48% in Jefferson County).

Ultimately, all three Black members of the commission voted against transferring the judgeship. All eight white members voted in favor.

Voters ignored

In the five months since the judgeship was transferred, Hudson said, she has been “relying on my faith,” leaving the case in the hands of her attorneys and turning back to the important work of representing her clients as a public defender for Jefferson County. But Hudson said she has been bolstered by the decision by Cook and other prominent Black members of the Magic City Bar Association, on which Cook serves as a member of the board of directors, to speak out. The association was founded in 1984 to promote the advancement of Black attorneys in Birmingham.

Birmingham became known as the Magic City because of its rapid growth in the late 1800s and early 1900s as its iron and steel industry was established.

In a conference call held with Hudson recently, members of the association spoke about Hudson’s case, she said, with many putting it into the context of Alabama history, long marred by racial violence, marginalization of the Black community and disenfranchisement of Black voters.

“There is more confidence when the judiciary looks like the community it serves; that has been my mantra for many, many years – that the courts should look like and reflect the people in the community,” Cook said.

Hudson, a Birmingham native, said that while she was deeply frustrated when the transfer of the judgeship was announced, she has been busy in recent months representing a defendant in a capital murder case and spending time with her husband and three children.

Speaking shortly before midterm elections were held across the country in November, Hudson said that her case was about “the voice of the voters that is being ignored.”

“What I was trying to do was just expand the background of the bench,” Hudson said of her run for the circuit court seat. She said the lawsuit is at its heart a plea for the elected leaders of Alabama to be accountable to voters.

“Listening to these judges speak about how people have tried in the past to shut down the voice of people in Jefferson County, it was a lightbulb moment,” Hudson said of the Magic City Bar Association conference call, in which members with generations of experience in Alabama called her legal battle part of a long-standing fight for justice for Jefferson County voters.

“The history lesson was enlightening.”

Picture at top: Tiara Hudson, a veteran public defender, was poised to assume a circuit court judgeship in Alabama's Jefferson County, where the population is 48% white, but a state commission has voted to relocate the seat to Madison County, where the white population is nearly 70%. A lawsuit contends that the commission does not have the authority to relocate the judgeship. (Credit: D. Jerome Smedley)