January 21, 2016; Montgomery Advertiser
For the past several months, NPQ has reported on the class-action lawsuits by the ACLU facing many so-called “debtors’ prisons,” which plaintiffs accuse of unduly discriminating against the poor and violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Southern Poverty Law Center has similarly been fighting for fair rights for the poor in an often-biased and prejudiced system.
Following a complaint filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Judicial Inquiry Commission of the State of Alabama found that Judge Marvin Wiggins violated the Alabama Canons of Judicial Ethics when he threatened to incarcerate defendants who could not the pay their court fees.
“The Judicial Inquiry Commission is sending a clear message that the constitutional rights of the poor must be respected in Alabama courtrooms,” wrote Sara Zampierin, a staff attorney at the SPLC, in a press release. “No one should be forced to give blood or go to jail simply because they cannot afford to pay their court fines and fees. And no one’s rights should be tied to their bank account.”
The complaint is based on an incident on September 17, 2015, when Judge Wiggins scheduled a “pay-due” day, attempting to recover outstanding court fees including court costs, fines, and restitution that remained unpaid. Several defendants were to appear before Judge Wiggins, but the notice of the hearing did not include any indication that they might be incarcerated or that they would need attorneys.
In order to balance their dues, Judge Wiggins gave the defendants a choice to either donate blood or to go to jail if they did not have the money to settle their debts. One of the defendants recorded the judge saying, “Consider that as a discount rather than putting you in jail, if you do not have any money.” That day, approximately 39 out of the 47 people that gave blood outside the courthouse were the indigent defendants on Judge Wiggins’ docket.
In assessing the complaint, the Judiciary Commission decided, “Judge Wiggins’ conduct regarding the incarceration of criminal defendants and his conduct in threatening to incarcerate those defendants who did not have ‘any money’ unless they gave blood were so coercive as to be reprehensible and inexcusable.” Specifically, the Judiciary Commission found Judge Wiggins violated one of tenets of the state’s Judicial Ethics, which reads, “A judge…should conduct himself at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.” In all, the Judiciary Commission found Judge Wiggins had violated state ethics on five charges. The judge has also been previously reprimanded for a conflict of interest in a separate unrelated case in 2009 and was removed from the Alabama State University board of trustees for similar issues,
While the justice system should be holding itself impartial to people of all walks of life, the poor are the ones caught under the heel of the system. When private attorneys are out of reach financially, often-overburdened public defenders cannot give each case and defendant their full attention. As illustrated most clearly in this case of ethical violations, when the poor cannot make bail, they often face incarceration at great rates. However, Judge Wiggins’ reprimand does demonstrate the continued efforts of the criminal reform movement to spotlight and isolate habitual violators.—Shafaq Hasan