Feds have often intervened in state

Published 11:27 am Wednesday, February 11, 2015

As the legislature and governor prepare for the upcoming initial legislative session of the quadrennium, they are facing ominous and obvious problems. The General Fund is in dire straits, primarily due to the escalating costs of Medicaid and prisons.

The problems in the prison system may be even more acute than with Medicaid. The reason is that our prison population is well in excess of what federal courts have determined is constitutional. There are federal judicial standards of humane care for prisoners and we currently are not within these guidelines. Therefore, we are on thin ice and shaky ground if our prison problems come before a federal judge.

The remedy they might adjudicate could be more expensive than our fixing the problem ourselves. History has a way of repeating itself. We have been dealt this card before in the Heart of Dixie.
We in the South have had a propensity, probably due to our heritage, of rebelling against the federal government. We seem to always come up on the short end of the stick. These losses have been very costly.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

The history of federal intervention into our affairs is pronounced. The results have been expensive, devastating and usually avoidable.

The most famous and glaring federal intervention came in the 1960s when George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door. The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled school segregation unconstitutional in 1954 in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. Alabama and the entire South had ignored the federal mandate. It came to a head here in Alabama with Gov. Wallace’s theatrical stand in front of Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama. Federal officials forced Gov. Wallace to stand down and allow two black students to attend the University.

The next year, the federal government, under the authority of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, forced the state to desegregate all public schools. The following year, after the Selma to Montgomery march and whirlwind of civil rights marches and protests, Congress passed the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Up until that time, very few blacks could vote in the South.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed discriminatory practices, such as poll taxes and literacy tests. The Act also allowed for federal oversight over Alabama’s voting laws. African American Alabamians voted in mass in 1966.

Alabama’s mental health system became the subject of federal intervention in the 1970’s. The legislature cut an already paltry appropriation for mental health. A class action lawsuit followed. The case Wyatt v. Stickney centered on overcrowding and inhumane conditions in our mental institutions.

A federal judge ruled that mental health patients have a right to a certain standard of care. The judge ordered restoration of the funding. It was not until 2003, close to 30 years later, that the feds stopped overseeing our mental health facilities. The case wound up costing the state millions in court and compliance costs.

In 1985, a federal lawsuit was filed against Alabama’s Department of Transportation alleging that the Highway Department had discriminated against blacks in their hiring practices. At that time, the department had less than 10 percent black professionals and technicians. The plaintiffs won.

The federal court decree restrained the department’s hiring until it reached the quota they desired. By 2003, 31 percent of the professionals and 25 percent of the technicians at ALDOT were black. This lawsuit has cost the state over $300 million and is still ongoing.

We have also seen federal intervention regarding our teacher testing standards. A federal court decree kept Alabama from testing our teachers for close to two decades.

In 2001, Chief Justice Roy Moore placed a Ten Commandments monument in the Alabama Judicial Building. A federal judge ordered the monument removed in 2003. Judge Moore, in a bold move, similar to George Wallace’s schoolhouse door stand, refused to obey the federal order. He was then removed from office.

The people of Alabama sent the feds a message that they stood with Moore when they reelected him as Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court in 2012.

When it comes to federal intervention, this current possible intrusion into our prisons will not be our first rodeo.

See you next week.

Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column on Alabama politics appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.