One of the defining issues over the past several election cycles has been how best to conceive the relationship between local and centralized power in this country. Centralization and de-centralization, regulation and de-regulation: these have been the terms in which a great many contemporary issues have been framed.
On one extreme, we meet Tea Party activists who recognize virtually no legitimate role for centralized federal government (apart from the Pentagon and the definition of marriage); de-regulation, states’ rights, and local control of government institutions is their mantra. On the other, slightly more fictional extreme, we meet French-style statists who think the vast majority of social networks are best handled in a centralized and top-down manner; centralization and government regulation is their rallying cry.
Nearer to the sober middle, however, much of the debate hinges on reasoned deliberative judgments about which matters are best handled at the federal level — programs such as Homeland Security and Defense, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, the U.S. Postal Service, and economically crucial matters such as interstate and international commerce, the national grid of roadways, railways and airways, and so on — and what services are better left to state and local governments. Curiously, the place of education and of intimate human relationships have been among the most vexing of these questions to resolve.
A curious example of this confusion — and the implicit dominance of the federal over the local perspective — may be seen in the way election coverage played on televison and other media Tuesday night. In a word, “the” election was reported almost exclusively as a centralized, federal affair. We witnessed, all night long, the state-by-state roll call as polling booths closed and electoral delegates were assigned to their respective presidential candidates. We saw the graphics displaying the current and soon-to-be composition of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. We learned who would be going to Washington, D.C., and who not.
State and local issues had difficulty making their way into the reporting. To be sure, there were a few dramatic ballot initiatives that attracted national attention: gay marriage proposals passed in Maine and Maryland and Washington State; recreational marijuana use was approved in Colorado and again in Washington; mandatory condom use was required for actors in the pornographic film industry in LA County.
What had no part in election night reporting was the fact that in many states judicial posts are elected, and that would-be judges have to campaign for their positions. Still more remarkable, these justices are often identified with political parties. The most striking case came from Alabama, where the Republican Judge Roy Moore was reelected to his previous post as Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court.
The name may seem familiar, and it is worth recalling why. Roy Moore was elected as the Alabama State Supreme Court chief Justice in 2000. He infamously arranged to have a two-ton granite display of the Ten Commandments placed in the rotunda of the Alabama Judicial Building the very next year. He did this in the middle of the night on July 31, 2001, without consulting his fellow Supreme Court justices. Moore was ordered by a U.S. District Court to remove the monument and he refused to do so. His eight colleagues overruled him, and the Ten Commandments monument was removed from the rotunda and later taken on a nationwide fund-raising tour. Meanwhile, Alabama’s Judicial Ethics panel voted unanimously to remove Chief Justice Moore from his position on Nov. 13, 2003.
Moore ran unsuccessfully as a Republican candidate for state governor in 2006, losing by a 2-to-1 margin to the incumbent governor, Bob Riley. He tried again in 2010, but came in fourth with only 19 percent of the Republican vote. In 2011, Moore formed an exploratory committee to consider a run for the White House, but decided the odds were long, even by his risk-taker’s standards.
But now Roy Moore is back, back in his old job as Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court of Alabama; after winning the Republican primary in March, he publicly promised not to try to restore the Ten Commandments monument, nor to revisit that debate. Nonetheless, his views on the very tenuous separation between the Christian religion and the southern states is very clear.
Roy Moore won his bid to return to th State supreme Court over a Jefferson County Circuit Judge named Bob Vance. Moore suggested that he did not wish to pick a fight about the public display of the Ten Commandments a second time, in large part because the centerpiece of his understanding of judicial responsibility these challenging economic times is how to adjudicate fairly and efficiently in a time of massive cuts in state spending across all social sectors, but especially in budgets for state courts and local policing.
So, in any case, he claimed. The consultation of his re-election website tells a very different story – a story that makes the Ten Commandments monument, the subsequent debate it generated, and his eventual dismissal from the Court all central to his evolving judicial philosophy. Moore’s own providential career, as he suggests quite clearly, has always hinged on the Ten Commandments. And as the six-and-one-half minute video on his website also makes clear, when God brought his future wife into his life in 1985, and shortly after they married, she was given the responsibility for decorating their new home. She placed a copy of the Ten Commandments prominently on the wall of that home.
Later, when Moore took up his duties as Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice, he elected to bring that wall hanging into his courthouse. That decision prompted an immediate push-back from the ACLU, and the video suggests that this was what inspired Moore to up the ante by placing a much larger monument in the rotunda in a manner that would be literally impossible to miss (or move, for that matter). His martyrdom to the cause of an inseparable church and state serves, he suggests, as “a reminder of our nation’s Godly heritage,” as well as of “the divine foundation of this nation.” Moore himself points to the essential unity of his entire judicial career as one “long battle to recognize the sovereignty of God,” and to call the country back to its true identity as “one nation under God.”
It is striking that the very next phrase of that familiar pledge of allegiance — “indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” — is omitted from the statement broadcast on his website’s video broadcast. It really almost has to be that way. For Roy Moore is divisive, intentionally so. And he speaks far more of God and religious rights than he does of liberty and justice for the non-Christian citizens in our midst.
Perhaps the most striking image in this election cycle was that of Roy Moore coming to cast his ballot on Tuesday. He arrived dramatically seated atop a very large horse, dressed in black and wearing an oversize cowboy hat. The symbolics were alarming: it seems as if he were equating the role of Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court with that of a western-style sheriff from the Wild Old West. It seems far to conclude that Roy Moore intends to police, if not to legislate, from the bench.
Make no mistake about it; this was a significant election result with legal, cultural and religious consequence. Chief Justice Moore has indicated that, while he will not raise the question of the Ten Commandments explicitly, he will indeed work explicitly against the sorts of gay marriage proposals that have found a sympathetic audience in several other states.
We may thus be sure that there will be a great deal more expensive litigation coming out of the great state of Alabama in coming years. And this serves as a reminder of why we need to pay attention to more than just the presidential and congressional electoral results, nationwide.