Alabama scored a 61.8 on the Judicial Accountability category in the State Integrity Investigation, but that was enough to rank it 12th-best among states across the country.
The state’s low overall score is based in large part on the state having elected judges, an issue of frequent debate in Alabama. The only professional standard candidates must meet is being a lawyer, and there is no group legally charged with evaluating the qualifications of candidates or the performance of judges.
Additionally, Alabama does not have a law requiring judges to explain their decisions in writing. Judges usually do give reasons for their decisions, especially for on bigger issues and especially appellate court justice. But they don’t always issue written opinions.
Another low spot in the scoring is access to judicial records. While administrative records of the courts are subject to the same public records laws that apply to all state government offices, court records are not as readily available to the public. They are available through the ‘Just One Look’ system, but members of the public have to register and pay to access the records. The records also can be viewed for free on computers in the courthouse, but that requires a trip to the courthouse during business hours.
On the positive side, judges in Alabama are subject to the state’s ethics law, just as other state officials and employees are. And they have additional oversight from the Judicial Inquiry Commission and the Court of the Judiciary.
The Judicial Inquiry Commission investigates complaints against judges and determines whether charges should be filed with the Court of the Judiciary. If the commission finds cause to believe a judge acted improperly, it prosecutes the case before the Court of the Judiciary, which has the authority to remove a judge from office, suspend a judge without pay, censure a judge or apply other sanctions as deemed necessary.
Judges also must file two separate asset disclosure forms – the same form other state officials file with the state Ethics Commission, and another with the clerk of the Supreme Court that lists proprietorships, companies, corporations and partnerships in which the judge owns a financial interest and a list of the names of creditors to whom he owes money. The disclosure filed with the clerk is not public record, but the clerk may examine it if a question arises about a potential conflict of interest.