The Alabama Democratic Executive Committee yesterday threw a curveball at the public, while essentially flipping a giant middle finger to Gov. Bob Riley and the Alabama State Bar. We give both actions two thumbs up.
Most observers, including this one, expected the committee to remove Kenya Lavender Marshall from the general-election ballot for a spot on the Jefferson County Circuit Court and replace her with Nicole Gordon Still. The process that led to Marshall's removal reeked of politics, but we figured the Democratic committee would cave and pick Still, who had placed second to Marshall in the party primary.
We, however, underestimated the committee. They indeed removed Marshall, following allegations from the State Bar that she had misappropriated $30,000 in a client fund. But instead of going with Still, who had been appointed to the judgeship last June by Riley, they chose Birmingham lawyer Elisabeth French. With no Republican in the running, French is likely to take office in January 2011.
Our first reaction to the news was shock. After all, French had not run in the primary. But state party bylaws do not limit who can be considered if a party nomination is vacated. The committee had every right to consider someone who had not run for the position, and we now think choosing French was a master stroke--the kind of gutsy, smart move for which Alabama Democrats are not always known.
On paper, French is at least as qualified as Still and more qualified than Marshall. Both French and Still have practiced law for 13 years, while Marshall has five years of experience.
We have not seen Still's full biography, but it appears that most of her experience has come while working in law firms operated by her father, Bruce Gordon. He worked for years at the state's largest employment law firm, Gordon Silberman Wiggins & Childs (now Wiggins Childs Quinn & Pantazis) and now leads the Birmingham firm of Gordon Dana Knight & Gilmore. As we reported yesterday, Bruce Gordon has ties to the Rileys. He represented Alabama Pain Consultants, a company affiliated with Homewood attorney Rob Riley, the governor's son. We suspect that connection to the Rileys is the reason Nicole Gordon Still was appointed in the first place.
French has been in solo practice since 2008. But before that, she worked for 10 years at the Birmingham firm Pittman Hooks Dutton Kirby & Hellums. She focused on complex civil litigation and environmental law. The firm focuses on products liability, personal injury, medical malpractice, premises liability, among other areas. French is married to Courtney French, president of the Alabama Association for Justice and a member of the Birmingham firm Fuston Petway & French.
Still, taking a page from Artur Davis, came across as an ungracious loser. In a written statement, she said:
What has happened today is deplorable. This decision circumvents the election process and the will of the Jefferson County Democratic Executive Committee. While there are many great candidates worthy of office in November, this is a bleak day for the Democratic Party in Alabama.
The Frenches supported me during my entire campaign and urged others to vote for me. Then, they used their relationships and the dynamics of this election in order to be handpicked for this judgeship without ever going through the election process.
In addition to spewing sour grapes, Still seems to be exhibiting a selective memory:
* The decision circumvents the election process?--That was circumvented when the Alabama State Bar went after Kenya Lavender Marshall, just three weeks after she had won the primary. And did Bob Riley, who appointed Still, have anything to do with that? Does Nicole Gordon Still know about actions others took on her behalf, in an effort to "circumvent the election process"?
* The Frenches used their relationships?--They probably did; that's standard political practice. But what about Ms. Still? Did her father's connections to Rob Riley help get her appointed in the first place?
* French was "handpicked" for this judgeship?--What do you call it, Ms. Still, when Bob Riley appoints you, probably with the influence of your father? That's not being handpicked?
The decision to pick French already is being colored in racial terms. She and Marshall are black, and Still is white. Some have speculated that the party felt it had to replace one black female with another. And it's certainly possible that both race and gender played a role in the final selection.
But I don't think that tells the whole story. Just a few weeks ago, Alabama Democrats soundly rejected Artur Davis, a black male who had openly courted the state's business establishment in an effort to become governor.
Now, Alabama Democrats have rejected Nicole Gordon Still, who courted the state's legal establishment. Her father is a prominent and influential attorney. Her father has clear ties to Rob Riley. She was appointed by Bob Riley. Her husband, S. Chris Still, works for Balch & Bingham, one of the most pro-business law firms in the state. According to his bio, Chris Still works heavily with electric and nuclear energy companies. It seems safe to say that he represents companies that are connected to Bill Canary's Business Council of Alabama.
Perhaps this wasn't so much about race. Perhaps true Alabama progressives stood up and took a stand yesterday. Perhaps they, in essence, said, "We've seen the business establishment in this country ruin our economy. We've seen the legal establishment in this country corrupt our justice system, especially here in Alabama.
"We rejected Artur Davis, and we now reject Nicole Gordon Still. And it is not because of their skin color. It's because they have cozied up to the establishment forces who have consistently acted against the best interests of regular, everyday Americans. It's time that we push for a true progressive agenda--in Alabama and beyond. And we are taking a stand for such an agenda today."
If that was the thinking behind the decision to select Elisabeth French, I am all for it.