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Friday, April 2, 2004

By Steven Taylor @ 7:00 am

This appered in last Sunday’s (3/28/04) Birmingham News, but it never made it to the web and I kep foregetting to post it.

Immunity Bill Could Enhance Legislature’s Image

Steven L. Taylor

It is clear that Alabama’s state legislature has an image problem. Certainly part of the message sent by voters last fall, when they resoundingly rejected Governor Bob Riley’s tax and accountability package, was that Alabamians, by and large, do not trust those who occupy the State House and Senate. Indeed, this is an ongoing theme in commercials each campaign season in which we are treated to images of whiskey-swilling, cigar-chomping good ole boys making backroom deals which, in turn, are used to make the phrase “Montgomery politician” an epithet.

Such images and perceptions are problematic for the simple reason that the key to good public policy in any democratic government is the legislature. If we, as a voting population, have no respect for legislators, or if we throw up our hands in disgust and disengage from electoral politics, then we abandon the only means we have of dealing with issues such as state economic development and education, to name but two.

Hence, it is remarkable that, given the opportunity, that the legislature seems unwilling to engage in what would essentially be a symbolic act to work to build a workable image in the public’s mind. The case in point: the recent attempt to alter the legislative immunity clause from the Alabama State Constitution.
Section 56 of the Alabama State Constitution states: “Members of the legislature shall, in all cases, except treason, felony, violation of their oath of office, and breach of the peace, be privileged from arrest during their attendance at the session of their respective houses, and in going to and returning from the same; and for any speech or debate in either house shall not be questioned in any other place.”
The idea of legislative immunity is an old one intended to protect members of legislative bodies from being charged with crimes in association with their normal legislative duties, and have their specific genesis in protecting lawmakers from retribution based on what they say on the floor of the legislature during debate.

The intent is clear: it is to stop the executive branch or local officials generically from using their power to disrupt legitimate legislative activities by detaining lawmakers or impeding them in any way from attending to their constitutionally appointed tasks. Further, the speech and debate portion is to shield legislators from facing criminal charges for criticizing members of the executive or judicial branches. In short, this clause, and clauses like it in other state constitutions, was designed to prevent the abuse of power by governmental officials who might wish to disrupt the sanctity of legislative debate.

There can be no doubt that there is a need to codify protection of the speech of member of legislatures. They should be allowed to pursue the interests of their constituents unfettered by fears of lawsuits or other prosecutions because of what they say. Reasonable protections against law enforcement stopping legislators going to legislative sessions make sense as well, if only to protect against potential abuses of police power.

The immunity question became an issue in our state as the result of a recent run-in with Montgomery Police by State Representative Alvin Holmes (D-Montgomery) was pulled over on suspicion of drunken driving in early February in Montgomery. He was eventually escorted home due to the fact that he was a member of the state legislature.

This event led to a bill being introduced by Representative Jay Love (R-Montgomery) that would amend the State Constitution to remove the immunity clause. Such a decision would have to go before the voters of Alabama. Further, it is likely that the proposal would include some protection in regards to actually legislative activities, as was the intent of the clause in the first place. The bill has left committee in the House of Representatives and but has basically been killed, as it was blocked from reaching the floor.

The bill itself, and the amendment process it would spawn, is not, strictly speaking, required, as State Attorney General’s office issued an opinion this month that noted that the immunity clause does not grant protection from traffic arrests or other criminal activities, but rather protects legislators from civil arrest. Still, the case can be made that the amendment could be a useful symbolic step to clarify that legislature does not see itself as above the law.

And, regardless of the attorney general’s opinion, it is clear that immunity clauses such as the one in our state constitution have caused problems across the country in a way that fosters a poor public image for politicians. For example, there was case in Virginia in 1996 in which a member of the Virginia legislature had a public indecency charge dismissed (he had been caught urinating in a public park) on the grounds of legislative immunity. Further, it is a commonplace story across the United States for speeding tickets to be dismissed, or never issued, on the same grounds.

As such, the proposed legislation could have been a step in the right direction of a long march towards getting the citizens of Alabama to respect its legislature, and to become actively engaged with it. Instead, the legislature appears to be blind to the need to remake its own image.

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  1. Speaking of taxes, as you probably know, Thursday, April 15 is Tax the day or reckoning. We Americans ought to think about the $50 billion taxpayer dollars that are thrown away fighting the “war on drugs” every year - that’s almost $225 for every tax return filed in 2003! Money spent on home invasions like this:

    Comment by Al — Friday, April 2, 2004 @ 9:36 am

  2. Computer security recourse: :Secure Root:

    Comment by James — Friday, May 21, 2004 @ 4:38 pm

  3. Computer security recourse: :SecureRoot:

    Comment by Margery — Friday, May 21, 2004 @ 4:41 pm

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