MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore stands accused of urging defiance against the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, but his lawyers argued Tuesday in a legal filing that the complaint is baseless and he never ordered state probate judges to refuse wedding licenses to gay couples.
The outspoken Republican jurist, who once lost his judicial post for disobeying a federal court order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the Alabama Supreme Court building, is suspended from the bench. He faces possible removal from office again over a January administrative order he sent probate judges.
His order reminded judges that a 2015 Alabama Supreme Court injunction to refuse same-sex marriage licenses remained in "full force and effect" even though the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges effectively legalized gay marriage six months earlier.
Moore's attorneys asked a judicial panel to dismiss the ethics complaint against him brought by the state's Judicial Inquiry Commission. They wrote that Moore never told probate judges to refuse the licenses, but was correctly summarizing the status of a state injunction in answer to questions from probate judges.
"The Administrative Order of Chief Justice Moore expressly said he could not provide guidance to the probate judges because the matter was pending before the Alabama Supreme Court. The JIC apparently wanted the Chief Justice to openly disobey the Alabama Supreme Court and to take matters into his own hands," Moore's attorney Mat Staver said in a statement.
His lawyers noted another section of the January order in which Moore said he was "not at liberty to provide any guidance to Alabama probate judges on the effect of Obergefell on the existing orders of the Alabama Supreme Court."
The chief justice was automatically suspended from the bench and could be removed permanently by the Court of the Judiciary.
Moore was removed from the office in 2003 over the Ten Commandments monument, but later ran for Supreme Court again and won. His attorneys rejected suggestions that Moore was again defying — or urging defiance— of the federal courts.
"The intent to sell the theme: 'He's doing it again!' is evident in the complaint," his lawyers wrote. "Although the JIC wishes to create the appearance that the Chief Justice ordered the probate judges to defy the federal courts, he, in fact, did not do so. He merely instructed them that the Alabama Supreme Court's orders ... remained in effect until modified by that Court."
His attorneys also claimed that the commission overstepped its authority with the charges against Moore.
Moore's suspension comes amid a season of political upheaval in Alabama that has ensnared Republicans at the top of all three branches of state government.
Former House Speaker Mike Hubbard was removed from office after being convicted of violating state ethics law. Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley has faced calls for his impeachment following a sex-tinged scandal
The Judicial Inquiry Commission last month filed charges against Moore, saying his actions showed disrespect for the judiciary and his order was contrary to clear and determined law.
"By issuing his unilateral order of January 6, 2016, Chief Justice Moore flagrantly disregarded a fundamental constitutional right guaranteed in all states as declared by the United States Court in Obergefell," the Judicial Inquiry Commission wrote in the charges.
Moore was re-elected in 2012.The fiery Republican chief justice has been an outspoken critic of same-sex marriage. During a 2012 campaign stop he said gay marriage would be the "ultimate destruction of our country because it destroys the very foundation upon which this nation is based."
However, he has chosen his words carefully since rejoining the bench. In a speech after the Supreme Court decision, he quoted dissenting justices' criticisms of the ruling.
Moore's January order had little impact on the marriage landscape in Alabama. Most counties continued to issue marriage licenses to gay couples within days of his orders. A few counties have suspended marriage license operations altogether to avoid giving licenses to same-sex couples.