Alabama: bill for judicial recusal due to campaign contributions clears first legislative hurdle but won’t apply to some lower court races

I mentioned last week that Alabama was considering junking a never enforced statute requiring judicial recusal due to campaign contributions in favor of a new system. A modified version of that system (HB 543) was approved yesterday by the House Constitution, Campaigns and Elections Committee.

HB 543 AS INTRODUCED provided that in civil cases:

  1. “Party” in a case means actual party, their immediate family, anyone holding 5% of value in a business named in the case, attorneys and their firms.
  2. Judges must recuse “as a result of a substantial campaign contribution or electioneering communication” by a party if a reasonable person would perceive judge’s ability to be impartial are impaired OR there is a “serious, objective probability of actual bias” due to the campaign contribution.
  3. There is a rebuttable presumption that a judge must recuse where 25% or more of contributions to the judge’s campaign came directly from the party AND the contributions were made at a time when it was reasonably foreseeable that the case could come before the judge.

HB 543 AS AMENDED kept items 1 & 2, but modified item 3: the rebuttable presumption no longer kicks in at 25% of total contributions but through a tiered approach

  • 10% for statewide appellate races (Supreme, Court of Civil Appeals, Court of Criminal Appeals)
  • 15% for Circuit Court races (state’s general jurisdiction court)
  • 25% for District Court races (state’s main limited jurisdiction court)

The specificity in the committee amendments also mean that races for Probate or Municipal Court would not be part of the 10%/15%/25% law. Probate Courts have civil jurisdiction in cases involving mental health, probate and estate matters as well as adoption. Municipal Courts effectively no civil jurisdiction, handling only misdemeanors, ordinance and traffic/parking violations.

HB 543 has been sent to the House floor and could theoretically be voted on as early as today.