By Kelli Dugan
MOBILE, Alabama (Reuters) - The former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice who was booted from his post for refusing to remove a Ten Commandments monument from a courthouse rode a horse to the polls on Tuesday and inched closer to reclaiming his seat on the state's high court.
With 98 percent of precincts reported unofficially early Wednesday, Roy Moore had about 51 percent of the primary vote, appearing to edge both current Chief Justice Chuck Malone and former Alabama Attorney General Charlie Graddick out of contention for the Republican nomination.
Moore, 64, drew national attention for installing a 5,280-pound granite monument of the biblical codes in the rotunda of the Alabama Judicial Building in Montgomery shortly after his first election to the chief justice post in 2000.
The installation drew opposition from advocates of the separation of church and state and resulted in a legal challenge. A federal judge ultimately ruled Moore was placing himself above the law and violating the U.S. Constitution by refusing to remove the monument, and the Alabama Court of the Judiciary unanimously removed him from office on November 13, 2003.
Moore has since mounted two unsuccessful gubernatorial campaigns in Alabama, failing both times to win the Republican primary, and abandoned plans last June to pursue a presidential bid.
Moore, who wrote the book, "So Help Me God: The Ten Commandments, Judicial Tyranny, and the Battle for Religious Freedom," vowed several times during his latest campaign that he would not resurrect the Ten Commandments issue if again elected chief justice.
John L. Carroll, dean of Samford University's Cumberland School of Law and the former legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said he was unaware of another instance in which a removed judge had reclaimed an elected position.
"It really boils down to backlash against the federal court order and his removal from office the first time," said Carroll, citing Moore's campaign ad that touted his track record of standing up to the American Civil Liberties Union.
"That was sort of a code word for, ‘Remember what happened to me last time,'" Carroll said.
Neither of Moore's Republican challengers had conceded the race Wednesday morning.
In a theatrical flourish, Moore arrived at the polls on horseback on Tuesday. He remained confident on Wednesday that his grassroots campaign, which raised only about $230,000 compared with the combined $1.5 million spent by his opponents, would prevail.
If his percentage holds he can avoid an April 14 runoff.
"We're confident we will win without a runoff and if there is a runoff we will win that, too," Moore said.
The Republican nominee will face Democrat Harry Lyon in the November general election.
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Daniel Trotta)