Two Alabama State Court Judges Disciplined
by David M. Reutter
Almost 35 years after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed “debtors’ prisons” – in which defendants are threatened with jail if they fail to pay fees and fines – courts continue to struggle to follow the ruling. The recent troubles of an Alabama judge demonstrate that ongoing struggle.
According to an October 2015 complaint filed by the Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission against Circuit Court Judge Marvin Wayne Wiggins, poor defendants in his courtroom were given a stark choice: Donate blood or go to jail.
In a recording made by one defendant, Wiggins spoke from the bench about a blood drive underway outside the courthouse and added, “... if you do not have any money and you don’t want to go to jail, as an option to pay it, you can give blood today ... or the sheriff has enough handcuffs for those who do not have money.”
Of the 47 defendants who gave blood outside the courthouse that day, only six were not from Wiggins’ court.
“Judge Wiggins’ conduct regarding the incarceration of criminal defendants and his conduct in threatening to incarcerate those defendants who do not have ‘any money’ unless they gave blood were so coercive as to be reprehensible and inexcusable,” the complaint stated.
While acknowledging that he used “very poor language,” Wiggins – who has served on the bench since 1999 – defended his actions.
“We’re trying to find creative ways to help people pay their fees and expense,” he said. “Because of our area, we know that the people don’t have the kind of income, the salaries to pay the fines and we have to collect them. So, as an option sometimes to paying the fine, you may allow them to do community services.”
On the other side of the scales of justice, another 2015 complaint filed by the Commission alleged a pattern of bias against lenders and in favor of debtors in small claims court cases heard by Wilcox County Judge Jo Celeste Pettway. Pettway, who has served as a judge since 1984, was also accused of being slow to rule on small claims cases, not following the law and having a disorganized court – allegations arising in part from her failure to learn and use the state’s automated docket system. She too defended her actions.
“I believe that if a person is willing to pay their debts, the lender can be patient and get their money,” she said in response to the complaint.
Both judges were suspended with pay pending resolution of the charges against them. Following an expedited hearing, the Commission ruled on January 21, 2016 that Wiggins had violated the Canons of Judicial Ethics and should be publicly censured. That same day, the Commission suspended Judge Pettway without pay for 180 days.
Both jurists were also taxed with the costs of their disciplinary actions. After deducting from her suspension the time off while awaiting the Commission’s decision, Pettway returned to the bench in April 2016, though her pay did not resume until July.
Sources: www.al.com, Alabama News Network, www.ballotpedia.org