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Alabama Governor to Courts: 'en Garde'

Fob James advances own vision of New South, championing school prayer and states' rights

By Christina NifongStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 10, 1997


Alabama Gov. Fob James seems an unlikely legal crusader. Unschooled in the law, a politician said to be unsophisticated about the complexities of politics, he nonetheless has embarked on a quixotic quest to reverse legal precedents of 50 years' standing.

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His crusade: curbing the power of the federal judiciary. To be sure, the campaign may be akin to tilting at windmills. An army of Ivy-League-trained legal scholars is against him, and most of them consider his views to be arcane.

Still, Governor James has a sincere, winning manner - and a style reminiscent of Alabama's other populist governor, George Wallace. Some analysts say James's message, like Wallace's, may resonate loudly with a certain disgruntled segment of the populace - though he is tapping into frustration with the courts rather than with race.

"I don't think his crusade will result in much change in the federal judiciary," says Charles Haynes, a scholar at the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center in Nashville. "I do think that it will continue to whip up a hostility to what the federal government does, and that may have other, unforeseen consequences."

The governor's dispute with the US Supreme Court and the federal district courts boils down to this: The federal courts have overstepped the boundaries defined by America's founders. The result, says James, is that dozens of judges are setting policy and making laws that should be left to the people and their democratically elected leaders.

Specifically, James is arguing that the states are under no obligation to comply with the Bill of Rights - the first 10 amendments to the US Constitution, most of which guarantee individual freedoms. Legal scholars have long argued that the subsequent 14th Amendment, adopted in 1868, links the states to the Bill of Rights. But James insists that their interpretation is overbroad and wrong: He argues the Bill of Rights' limitations on government apply only to Congress, not to states.

"It gnaws on me," says James, sitting on the edge of his mahogany chair in his state house office. "Supreme Court justices should not rule outside of their legitimate authority."

Fight over 14th Amendment

James's argument seems so "out there" that it has been fodder for late-night TV comedians. But the question of how to interpret the 14th Amendment - and the larger issue of the power of the federal courts - has been a legal sticking point for decades. Conservatives from former Attorney General Edwin Meese to Watergate lawyer Leon Jaworski have at various times voiced some portion of James's argument.

This is not the first time James has lifted a pet issue to the national stage. He attracted attention in 1995 when Alabama became the first state to reintroduce prison chain gangs. Last year, he championed a state judge who posted the Ten Commandments in his courtroom. The governor even threatened to call on the National Guard to protect the Commandments' place on the courtroom wall.

His stances, especially on religious issues, have endeared him to a sizable faction of Alabamans - and many other Southerners. "He's fighting to leave the Commandments in the courthouse. I think he's doing a good job," says Antonio Haseri, waiting for a ride at a downtown bus stop here.

James, his tie pulled loose from his collar and a mischievous glint in his eye, seems not to care if the legal establishment is smirking over his latest cause clbre.

"I want you to know who my advisers are on this issue," says the Republican businessman-turned-politician. "We've got a fellow named Thomas Jefferson. I'm dead serious. We got a fellow named James Madison. Then, ... 'Old Hickory,' Andrew Jackson, was a lawyer. And Abraham Lincoln," he says. "So, until you show me evidence to the contrary relative to what the founders meant the Constitution to be, I'm going to stick with those boys."