Republican takes over Alabama high court New chief justice victor in contested outcome over incumbent Democrat

October 22, 1995|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- Perry Hooper Sr. donned a black robe and took the oath of office yesterday as Alabama's chief justice, becoming the first Republican to hold that office in this century after a bitter legal wrangle that found its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Chief Justice Hooper, 70, emerged the victor in a struggle between business interests backing him and trial lawyers who supported the incumbent chief justice, E. C. (Sonny) Hornsby Jr., a Democrat who had fought to retain his office for the 11 months since last November's election.

Earlier yesterday, Alabama Secretary of State Jim Bennett certified Mr. Hooper the winner by 262 votes. He received 562,428 votes and Mr. Hornsby got 562,166.

"This contest pitted the rule of law against political power," said Birmingham attorney Glenn Murdock, one of several lawyers who successfully challenged the absentee ballots that would have given Mr. Hornsby the election.

The issue of political campaign contributions by trial lawyers who had cases pending before the state Supreme Court, became the focus of Mr. Hooper's campaign last year and spawned debate over the impartiality of the judges.

The business community did not like the fact that the nine-member Supreme Court led by former Chief Justice Hornsby had overturned all tort-reform laws passed by the legislature in 1987.

Mr. Hooper, who had resumed private practice after serving 12 years as a circuit court judge, won the support of businesses in his campaign, while trial lawyers generally backed the incumbent.

After the Nov. 8 election, which Mr. Hooper appeared to lose by fewer than 2,000 votes, Republicans went to U.S. District Judge Alex Howard in Mobile, challenging absentee ballots that were unsigned and unwitnessed as required by state law.

Judge Howard presided over a September trial. Democrats contended that unwitnessed and unsigned absentee ballots should be counted if the voters had "substantially" complied with state law when casting their ballots.

But Judge Howard ordered about 2,000 unwitnessed and unsigned absentee ballots thrown out. Had those ballots been counted, many believe Mr. Hornsby would have won because historically in this area, Democrats have been the beneficiaries of absentee ballots.

A three-judge panel at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Judge Howard's order, but Mr. Hornsby's lawyers received a temporary stay from Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy on Oct. 14.

The nation's highest court has refused to hear the case.

With many of the Republican Party's workers and office holders in attendance, Mr. Hooper was sworn in by Republican Gov. Fob James Jr.

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