Sunday, March 9, 2008

Turning Back Alice Martin's Army

Birmingham, like most American cities these days, is a one-newspaper town. So if I want to keep up with local news, I have no choice but to hold my nose and read The Birmingham News.

One story that caught my attention in the News last week involved the issuance of subpoenas for a number of public officials in the ongoing investigation of the Alabama two-year college system. From reading the News, I had the impression this was a low-key, administrative event.

So imagine my astonishment when I read on the Web today that this little activity actually involved a federal raid on the Alabama Legislature--one that was effectively turned back!

Just how ignorant would Alabamians be without the Web and bloggers like Scott Horton at Harper's and Glynn Wilson at Locust Fork News?

And who designed the raid on the state house? Why, none other than Alice Martin, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama.

According to Horton, Martin sent U.S. marshals to Montgomery on Thursday to serve subpoenas on the floor of the legislature. She even had Birmingham television crews on alert to catch video of the raid. But guess what happened? Martin's plan failed, and here is Horton's account:

As this was getting underway, Martin conferred with her staff about a media spectacular. She described a plan to send a platoon of federal marshals, back up by television media crews, into the Statehouse to serve subpoenas on law-makers on the floor of the legislature. This would be carefully timed just to make the evening news.

And on Thursday the appointed day arrived. Martin directed that her action plan go into effect. She dispatched a group of federal marshals to Montgomery, accompanied by a television crew, with instructions to go serve grand jury subpoenas on a large group of mostly Democratic legislators. Then the plan went amiss. The Speaker of the state house, instructed the chamber’s own law enforcement personnel to bar the way, and Martin’s grandstanding was blocked. It didn’t make the evening news. Martin’s media hopes were crushed.

Glynn Wilson, of Locust Fork News, says the U.S. marshals might have violated state law while trying to carry out Martin's scheme. Wilson notes that Code of Alabama 29-1-7 prohibits the serving of members of the legislature while they are in session. Martin, who seems to hold little regard for federal law, evidently holds even less regard for state law.

Here's how Wilson describes Martin's actions:

In a move that can only be described as political theater, as opposed to honest, objective law enforcement, United States Attorney Alice Martin sent henchmen from the U.S. Marshals Service all the way from Birmingham to Montgomery this week to make a show of serving subpoenas on members of the Alabama Legislature.

If not for long-standing Legislative rules, they would have stormed into the Legislative chamber, with TV cameras from Birmingham in tow, to put on a real show.

But in the end, the show did not have the ratings power of the recent CBS News “60 Minutes” segment on the political prosecution of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman, so Karl Rove must be sorely disappointed down there in his Rosemary Beach bungalow not far from the Alabama line.

Most of the targeted legislators are Democrats, and Martin's actions drew a response from the Alabama Democratic Party:

Alabama Democratic Party Executive Director Jim Spearman called into question the method by which U.S. Marshals attempted to serve legislators subpoenas to appear to testify in a grand jury proceeding. Reporters were apparently tipped off by calls stating U.S. Marshals were coming to the Alabama Statehouse to serve some legislators, he said in a press release.

“The drama surrounding these actions and the U.S. Department of Justice’s disruption of a legislative session for the routine serving of a summons to appear in court sends a poor signal to Alabama citizens who are already complaining about partisan political interference into the federal prosecution of former Democratic Governor Don Siegelman,” Spearman said. “These ladies and gentlemen have not been charged with a crime and could have been served by other means in their local communities, not in Montgomery during a legislative session in front of TV cameras and reporters.”

As for the little matter of state law, Wilson writes:

State law actually prohibits serving members of the legislature while they are in session. Section 29-1-7 of the Alabama Code protects members from this kind of action by U.S. Marshals yesterday. In fact, the Marshals could have violated this law by their disruption of the session and have been charged with a misdemeanor.

“Thursday’s action only strengthens our resolve to insist that the U.S. House and Senate as well as the U.S. Attorney General immediately launch an inquiry into Alabama’s federal justice system to assure Alabama citizens that politics and partisanship have not been used in prosecutions or in the serving of subpoenas,” Spearman said. “If Republican operatives had any advance knowledge of yesterday’s serving of subpoenas at the Statehouse, they should have to testify before Congress under oath.”

Here's how the law reads:

Section 29-1-7
Privilege of members from arrest and civil process.

(a) Members of the Legislature of Alabama shall in all cases, except treason, felony and breach of the peace, be privileged from arrest and shall not be subject to service of any summons, citation or other civil process during their attendance at the session of their respective houses and in going to and returning from the same.
(b) Whoever knowingly and willfully denies to any member of the Legislature the privilege and immunity granted herein is guilty of a misdemeanor and, upon conviction, shall be punished by fine not exceeding $1,000.00 or by imprisonment for not more than one year, or by both.
(Acts 1959, 1st Ex. Sess., No. 88, p. 148.)

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