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Sunday, October 19, 2008

Could Judge's Retirement Be a Good Sign for Obama?

Federal judge U.W. Clemon, a historic figure who presides over the Northern District of Alabama, has announced that he will retire from the bench on January 31 and return to private practice.

This might present a bad news/good news scenario for citizens who care about justice in Alabama and beyond.

Clemon, who was appointed to the federal bench by President Jimmy Carter in 1980, has been a proponent of civil liberties and an obstacle to the growing rightward slant of America's federal courts over the past 25 to 30 years. As a lawyer, the 65-year-old Clemon handled a number of landmark civil-rights cases before becoming Alabama's first black federal judge.

In 1969, Clemon brought a lawsuit against famed University of Alabama football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant and UA trustees to integrate the Crimson Tide football team. The suit was dismissed after Bryant started recruiting black players.

Many progressives might best know Clemon as the judge who presided over the first criminal trial against former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman and threw out the case for lack of evidence. U.S. attorney Alice Martin, a Bush appointee in Birmingham, brought that case. Siegelman later was tried and convicted when Leura Canary, another Bush appointee, brought a different set of charges in Montgomery.

Clemon said he will formally notify the new president of his plans to retire on Inauguration Day.

Clemon cited stagnant federal-judges pay and the ongoing rightward shift of federal courts as reasons for his retirement. He is particularly unhappy with the U.S. Supreme Court's decision last year in the Lilly Ledbetter case, which Clemon handled in district court.

Ledbetter worked at a Goodyear plant in Gadsden, Alabama, and charged that the company had discriminated against her by giving her smaller raises than male managers. A jury found for Ledbetter and awarded $3 million in damages, but the U.S. Supreme Court (on a 5-4 vote) threw out the award, ruling that Ledbetter had missed a deadline to sue within 180 days of having received the first unequal pay raise. Ledbetter for years did not know that she had been paid less than men who held the same job.

"The court seems to me to have utterly ignored the remedial purpose of the nation's employment laws," Clemon said.

How could Clemon's decision to retire be good news? My guess is that it reflects his confidence that Democrat Barack Obama will defeat Republican John McCain in the presidential election on November 4.

Would Clemon be stepping down if he thought John McCain would be picking his successor? I don't think so.

If that's the case, is U.W. Clemon correct in his assessment of the 2008 presidential race? We have a little more than two weeks to find out.

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