by Samuel Rubinstein, Strategic Engagement Fellow, American Constitution Society
As the eyes of the nation were on Alabama for the high profile special Senate election between Roy Moore and Doug Jones, the Alabama Supreme Court issued a decision that raises troubling questions of partisan decision-making by state court judges. This corrosive effect that campaign money and politics have had on impartial justice was highlighted by Partisan Justice, a recent ACS report.
At issue in Alabama was a Montgomery County Circuit Court ruling which ordered the state not to destroy digital scans of paper ballots made by voting machines. Although paper ballots are retained, plaintiffs argued that public records laws mandate that the digital scans also be kept. The scans are important, they further argued, because only digital records are tabulated in the absence of a hand-recount, and machines can be tampered with. The state argued that the requested relief would require many machines to be reset with little time before the election. Siding with plaintiffs, the lower court wrote that, “the only action being asked of [the Secretary of State] at this point is to send a communication through a system that already exists and is routinely used,” to instruct local officials. Nonetheless, the Alabama Supreme Court reversed the injunction, allowing the records to be destroyed. Ultimately, the election was decided by 1.5 percentage points, avoiding an automatic hand-recount.