There has been little ennobling in the saga of Alabama Chief Justice Roy S. Moore — until last week, when a unanimous judicial disciplinary court removed him from his job. Mr. Moore is a demagogue who has made a judicial career not in his performance in the courts but in his unconstitutional decoration of them.
Most recently, he gained national attention when he installed a huge granite monument to the Ten Commandments in the Alabama Supreme Court building and then defied a federal court order to remove the obvious violation of the First Amendment’s separation of church and state.
Time was — and it wasn’t that long ago — a state court official in the deep South who openly thumbed his nose at the federal Constitution could have expected sympathy from his colleagues. But fortunately times have changed, as the nine judges who took Mr. Moore’s job away made clear. “Chief Justice Moore not only willfully and publicly defied the orders of a United States district court, but . . . he also gave the court no assurances that he would follow . . . any similar order in the future,” they wrote. “Under these circumstances, there is no penalty short of removal from office that would resolve this issue.”
Unfortunately, this unequivocal rebuke may close only a chapter of the Roy Moore story. For his latest escapades have made the now-former chief justice a celebrity. His supporters don’t see him as the scofflaw that he is — a man who feels free to ignore the constitutionally designated system by which law is interpreted in a democratic society. They see, rather, a man who stood up for God and morality in the face of secular culture. So even as Mr. Moore’s own court declared his behavior unethical and outside his legal authority, his viability as a candidate for governor or other statewide office — even his old job — may be enhanced by his purported martyrdom.
Yet even if Mr. Moore proves the ultimate beneficiary of his own disgrace, the court’s action was right and — considering the political climate — courageous. A large sector of the American electorate, after all, has yet to reconcile itself to the notion of a public square that does not elevate particular religious traditions over others or elevate religious belief over skepticism. Lamenting the separation of church and state is, however wrongheaded, the right of every individual. But civil disobedience is not the province of judges, who are not in any event supposed to serve as generals in the culture wars.
When the federal courts say what the Constitution means, the duty of every state court judge in the nation is to obey. With Justice Moore’s removal, the Alabama Supreme Court can once again embrace this basic tenet of the rule of law in America.