Thursday, May 29, 2008
On this day:

U.S. Supreme Court vindicates Riley, King

Governor Riley and Attorney General King won a big case in the U.S. Supreme Court this week. From the AP:

MOBILE, Ala. (AP) — The U.S. Supreme Court said Tuesday that Gov. Bob Riley did not need federal government approval to fill a vacancy on the Mobile County Commission with a fellow Republican appointee.

In a 7-2 ruling, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said a federal court was wrong to overturn Riley's appointment of Juan Chastang and order a special election be held to fill the seat. ...

The case involved a provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that requires Alabama and several other states — most in the South — to get federal approval before changing election procedures that affect minority voters.

But Ginsburg said the Voting Rights Act did not apply to the situation because there was, in effect, no change in Alabama law.

State Attorney General Troy King, whose office represented Riley in the case, said the Supreme Court's ruling prevents the Justice Department from trying to broaden the application of the Voting Rights Act and trying to create new election law in Alabama without a vote of the Legislature or the public. ...

Gubernatorial appointments for such county commission vacancies were the norm for many years. Special elections were established relatively recently with state legislation in the mid-1980s, and they were quickly struck down by the Alabama Supreme Court as violating the state constitution.

"Therefore, the state's reversion to its prior practice, in accord with the decision of the Alabama Supreme Court, did not rank as a 'change' requiring" federal approval before it could take effect, Ginsburg said. ...

Justices David Souter and John Paul Stevens dissented. ...

Riley appointed Chastang, a black Republican, to the Mobile commission in 2005 after Commissioner Sam Jones became Mobile's first black mayor.

Local Democrats challenged the appointment, arguing that a special election should have been held as in the past and that Riley's decision amounted to just the kind of voting-rights change that requires Justice Department approval.

Last January, the Justice Department agreed and said Riley's appointment appeared to weaken minority voters. Later, a three-judge panel in U.S. District Court in Montgomery ruled Riley's move unlawful and vacated the appointment.

Merceria Ludgood, a black Democrat, then defeated Chastang in a special election.

Riley has said he would not rule out reappointing Chastang even though voters had overwhelmingly rejected him in the special election. ...

The case is Riley v. Kennedy, 07-77.

Congratulations to Riley and King for taking this case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and winning. And what a difference an election makes! If either Riley or King had been defeated by their Democratic opponents in 2006, it's doubtful that this victory would have been possible, since neither Lucy Baxley nor John Tyson, Jr. would have been willing or able to take on the Democratic special interests who encouraged this lawsuit.

You can read Ruth Bader Ginsburg's opinion in Riley v. Kennedy here. The SCOTUS Wiki has a full summary of the case here.

SCOTUS Blog's Lyle Denniston summarizes:
In the last of three rulings Tuesday, the Court ruled that a 1985 Alabama law on the power to fill vacancies on county commissions had never actually been in effect, so it did not represent a change in election machinery under the Voting Rights Act when the state Supreme Court struck it down after it had been used in one election. A state law struck down by the state’s highest court was invalid from the outset, so the law switching to special election instead of appointment by the governor did not bring about a change in election law under the Act, and the governor was free to resume the practice of appointment to fill commission vacancies, the Court ruled. The case was Riley v. Kennedy (07-77), decided on a 7-2 vote.
Southern Appeal's Petigru's Ghost calls the case a "big win for the state, federalism and the Alabama Attorney General who refused to quit the fight despite repeated calls that he do so. "

Elections do matter.