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Judge Thomas denies charges

By Chip Drago
Mobile Bay Times
Mobile County Circuit Judge Herman Thomas Wednesday flatly denied all charges in a 15-count complaint accusing him of violating the Alabama Canon of Judicial Ethics. 

"Judge Thomas denies charges One through Fifteen ... and denies any violations of the Alabama Canon of Judicial
Ethics," his one-page response states.

The Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission Friday, March 9 lodged a 15-count complaint -- later amended -- alleging judicial misconduct by the veteran Mobile jurist in criminal matters involving:


"Judge Thomas, while serving as Circuit Court Judge of Mobile County, Alabama, did willfully allow his family, social, political, or other relationships to influence his judicial conduct or judgment," the complaint states.

Thomas denied that his activities in those matters violated the Alabama Canon of Judicial Ethics.

"He otherwise denies the material allegations of these paragraphs of the complaint," his answer continued.

The 11-page complaint was presented for prosecution before the Alabama Court of the Judiciary.

Deputy Attorney General Bill Lisenby Jr. heads the prosecution while David R. Boyd of Balch & Bingham leads Thomas' defense. Boyd has previously handled matters before the COJ. Boyd hasn't responded to attempts for comment.

A nine-member panel, the COJ is comprised of five judges, two lawyers and two lay persons or non-legal profession appointees. A unanimous vote of the panel is required to remove a judge from office. Other actions, including a censure and/or a suspension, must muster six votes.

There are two vacancies on the COJ, both lay person slots. Gov. Bob Riley has not yet named replacements for Mobile Mayor Sam Jones and Sue McInnish of Montgomery, whose terms expired in January and February, 2006, respectively.

The Alabama Supreme Court recently tapped Criminal Appeals Judge Greg Shaw to serve as presiding judge over the COJ.  Criminal Appeals Judge Bucky McMillan has agreed to continue to serve as the COJ's alternate presiding judge.

Now that Thomas has responded to the complaint, a discovery phase ensues as the defense and prosecution prepare their cases.

The defendant will be given 30 days notice of the setting of a trial date unless he waives the requirement, according to the court's Clerk John H. Wilkerson Jr.   

Mediation of the dispute remains available until 10 days before the trial date.

Thomas has been sidelined from his duties on the bench here while the case is pending.

A call to Thomas' home Wednesday afternoon was not immediately returned nor was an earlier page for comment.

Some of the charges against Thomas involved communications with his fellow judges.

A product of the Florida State University School of Law, Thomas on Saturday, April 28 will mark his 20th anniversary as a member of the Alabama State Bar.

Thomas worked as a prosecutor in the office of former Mobile County District Attorney Chris Galanos before becoming a district court judge and later moving up to circuit court.

Thomas is chairman of Mobile County's judicial nominating committee which plays a leading role in filling vacancies on the bench here.

Thomas first joined the bench here about 17 years ago in politically odd circumstances.

The judicial nominating committee, dominated at the time by Democrats, sought to confound Gov. Guy Hunt, the first Republican governor in Alabama since Reconstruction and himself the beneficiary of some "right time, right place" political good fortune. No political giant, Hunt was just a Republican probate judge/farmer from Cullman who was putative GOP fodder for the Democratic nominee, likely Bill Baxley, the political heir apparent to George Wallace.

But a funny thing happened to Baxley on his way to the governor's mansion in Montgomery.

Charlie Graddick, now presiding judge over Mobile County Circuit Court, beat Baxley in a runoff for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

Graddick had held office in Mobile County as a Republican district attorney, but jumped to the Democratic Party to win office as Alabama's attorney general. Joe Six-Pack liked Graddick while party officials resented him.

Leaders in the Democratic Party were staunch backers of Baxley and disdained the ex-Republican prosecutor who dared spoil their party.

State Democratic officials met and declared that Baxley, not Graddick, was the party's true nominee after tossing out "illegal crossover votes" for Graddick by Republicans who had no runoff elections of their own and so were able to "cross over" unlawfully to influence the outcome of the Democrats' election.

In November, a disgusted Alabama electorate voted for Hunt -- or perhaps more accurately against Democratic nominee Baxley --  though the smart money had predicted that Alabama voters would forget all about the "cross over voting" shenanigans come the fall campaigns.

But back to Hunt and the Mobile County judicial nominating committee that would have some fun with Alabama's sad-sack governor as he sought to fill a vacancy on the district court here with a Republican appointee.

The panel sent Hunt the names of three prospects, all Democrats -- Thomas and two politically active Democratic attorneys, Beth Marietta Lyons and Merceria Ludgood.

Chuck Spurlock, then Hunt's appointments secretary, now state coordinator for U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, considered Thomas's background as a prosecutor and learned of his general political and social conservatism. Thomas was deemed acceptable, if not merely the least objectionable of the three, and the state's first Republican governor in more than 100 years appointed a black Democrat to a district judgeship in Mobile County.

The following year the legal community rallied to ensure Thomas's election to a full term on the bench in part to demonstrate that the at-large election of judges did not prevent the election of blacks to judgeships in Mobile County. Almost all of the county's judges at the time lived in Spring Hill. The prospect of scattering throughout the county to stake a claim in one district or another or to challenge one and other in a huge Spring Hill donnybrook held little appeal for the judges.

Motivated by the judiciary, legal heavyweights lined up and Thomas won. The day was saved. The judges lived at-large and, for the most part, contentedly -- until recently.