In his first press interview since he was jailed a month ago, Alabama journalist Roger Shuler tells WhoWhatWhy that he will stay put behind bars rather than give in to a judge’s “unlawful” order that he scrub his blog of unseemly stories about a former governor’s son. Shuler called the court proceedings “worse than a joke.” A day later, he got indirect support from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who wrote in a withering dissent that “Alabama stands alone” with its highly politicized judiciary.
Columbiana, Alabama—In his first interview since he was jailed last month for contempt of court, Alabama journalist Roger Shuler said he will stay behind bars indefinitely rather than comply with a judge’s “unlawful” order to scrub his blog of scandalous stories he posted about a powerful Alabama politician’s son.
“Free press, free speech, the First Amendment—none of this means anything to these people,” Shuler said. “I don’t see any reason I should remove the material. Is a person obliged to take an action based on a judge’s unlawful order?”
Shuler, 56, spoke to WhoWhatWhy by videophone at the Shelby County Jail in this town 30 miles south of Birmingham. He seemed determined, lucid and optimistic, and he said he had been treated well by guards and inmates alike at the 500-bed jail.
“It’s not real fun being here,” he said, “but I’m doing OK.”
WhoWhatWhy, which reported earlier on his arrest and the free press implications, was Shuler’s first jail visitor since his October 23 arrest. His visitations are limited to a 30-minute window each Sunday afternoon. He speaks to his wife, Carol, nearly every day by phone, but she is hunkered down in their Birmingham home, fearing arrest if she leaves since she is a party to the same contempt ruling.
Shuler said he was encouraged by the attention his controversial case has gained in the alternative media and news outlets in Alabama—positive or not.
“Whether he’s a First Amendment martyr or a scurrilous gossip-monger depends on who you ask,” reporter Mike McClanahan said of Shuler in a story aired on WIAT-TV, the CBS affiliate in Birmingham. The report called the case “a combination political soap opera and battle over the free press.”
“I’m actually pleasantly surprised that it’s getting out there,” Shuler said. “These cases are not easy for the public to comprehend.”
Affair and Abortion Alleged
The contempt citation that landed Shuler in jail without bail concerns his “Legal Schnauzer” blog posts earlier this year that alleged an affair between Liberty Duke, a lobbyist in Alabama, and Robert (Rob) Riley, Jr., a Birmingham attorney and namesake of a two-term Republican governor of Alabama.
Shuler reported that Duke got pregnant, and “Republican insiders” paid her as much as $300,000 to have an abortion and to “stay quiet on the subject.” Both Riley and Duke were married to other people at the time. They denied the affair and filed a defamation lawsuit against Shuler.
The stakes are high for Rob Riley, whose name has been floated as a likely candidate for a soon-to-be-vacant U.S. congressional seat in the Birmingham area.
Shuler said he stands by his reporting, with sources that “go right up to the Riley family.”
A retired Alabama circuit judge, Claud Neilson, was appointed to the case by Roy Moore, the controversial State Supreme Court chief justice. Neilson took the extraordinary steps of sealing the case file and ordering Shuler to remove all content about the alleged affair from his blog. When the stories were not taken down and Shuler failed to appear at court hearings, Neilson held him in contempt, ordered his arrest and jailed him without bail.
The Alabama ACLU and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press have protested the judge’s scrub order as unlawful prior restraint under well-established First Amendment case law.
“The judge hasn’t made a single lawful order in this case,” Shuler told WhoWhatWhy.
Court Proceedings ‘an Insult to Kangaroos’
Wearing manacles, chains and jailbird orange, Shuler finally faced Neilson in court on Nov. 14, when the judge made permanent his injunction ordering Shuler to remove the blog content. According to Shuler, when he explained that he was unable to remove the posts while in custody, the judge curtly replied, “That’s your problem.”
“To call it a kangaroo court is an insult to kangaroos,” Shuler said. “It’s worse than a joke.”
The day after making that comment, he got a measure of affirmation from an unexpected source.
On Nov. 18, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would decline to hear the case of a convicted cop-killer from Montgomery who was spared the death penalty by an Alabama jury only to be subsequently sentenced to death anyway by the trial judge. Only three states allow the practice of “judicial overrides,” and 26 of the 27 overrides recorded since 2000 have occurred in Alabama.
In an unusual dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that “Alabama stands alone” in the highly politicized practice, where judges are motivated by re-election, not justice. She wrote:
What could explain Alabama judges’ distinctive proclivity for imposing death sentences in cases where a jury has already rejected that penalty? There is no evidence that criminal activity is more heinous in Alabama than in other states, or that Alabama juries are particularly lenient in weighing aggravating and mitigating circumstances. The only answer that is supported by empirical evidence is one that, in my view, casts a cloud of illegitimacy over the criminal justice system: Alabama judges, who are elected in partisan proceedings, appear to have succumbed to electoral pressures.
One Alabama judge, who has overridden jury verdicts to impose the death penalty on six occasions, campaigned by running several advertisements voicing his support for capital punishment. One of these ads boasted that he had “presided over more than 9,000 cases, including some of the most heinous murder trials in our history,” and expressly named some of the defendants whom he had sentenced to death, in at least one case over a jury’s contrary judgment.
The retired judge presiding over Roger Shuler’s case has also been singled out for blatant death penalty electioneering from the bench, WhoWhatWhy has learned.
Judge Claud Neilson was appointed by Alabama Gov. George Wallace in 1974, when Neilson was still in his 30s. Like Wallace, Neilson was a Yellow Dog Democrat. He spent decades as a circuit judge covering three counties in west-central Alabama.
In 1994, he ran for a seat on the Alabama Supreme Court. In a campaign ad, Neilson touted his fidelity to capital punishment, boasting that he “had looked into the eyes of murderers and sentenced them to death,” according to research by the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama nonprofit advocacy group.
Neilson lost in the primary. But he has been called on frequently to preside over special-assignment cases, like Rob Riley’s.
After one of those cases, concerning alleged misdeeds by a judge in Mobile, Neilson explained in an interview with a TV reporter that he uses a “gut feeling” judicial style.
“Well, I’ve been a judge for 35 years, and I have watched people testify in court, and I just had the feeling on some of them,” Neilson said. “It’s just something that if you’ve done it for as long as I have, you kinda size up people and kinda have a gut feeling that maybe they may not be telling the truth.”
About one-fifth of the 193 men and women on Death Row in Alabama were condemned through judicial overrides of jury sentences. The Equal Justice Initiative has produced numerous reports about the “unreliable, unpredictable and arbitrary” practice—so far to no avail in the Republican-dominated state.
Afraid to Answer the Door
The stakes are not quite so high for Shuler, but resolution won’t come easy.
Even some supporters have questioned Shuler’s strategies, suggesting he could have avoided jail by appearing in court when summoned. A Shelby County sheriff’s lieutenant says he served papers to Shuler on Sept. 29, but Shuler threw them out his car window.
Shuler insisted he was not legally served because the documents were not placed in his hand. He admitted he and his wife refused to answer the door when deputies visited his home a number of times in the weeks before he was arrested. He said they were afraid.
“We had a bunch of thugs come to our door,” he said. “It looked like a raid—like they were there to bust a meth lab.”
He said he is deeply suspicious of the criminal justice system in Alabama—one of the reasons Shuler said he will represent himself in the case, as he has done in a number of previous legal skirmishes.
He quickly added, “I’m not some whack job who doesn’t want help. I want legal help, but it has to be the right kind of help. I’ve had some bad experiences with lawyers, and those experiences tell me that lawyers tend to take your money and represent the other side.”
Blog Emerged After Dispute With Neighbor
His skepticism is informed by the original inspiration for his blog: a barking-dog dispute with a new neighbor in 1998 that escalated into a long, bitter, costly court battle.
Shuler lost, even after paying lawyers $12,000. In his first blog post, on June 3, 2007, the former newspaperman and university publications editor wrote:
I used to think that I probably would never be involved in a court case. And if I was somehow involved, I figured the judge (or judges) surely would rule according to the law. After all, they wear robes, we call them “your honor,” we rise when they come into the courtroom. Of all people, surely a judge would be honest.
This blog will show you how wrong I was. It will show you how judges and attorneys conspire to cheat some people and favor others. It will show you how politics raises its ugly head in our courtrooms. It will show you how you can figure out if you are being cheated by a judge or an attorney (even your own!). And it will show you what you can do about it.
Soon, Shuler was posting as frequently as five times a week with stories—most featuring his own research—about what he called “a culture of corruption that permeates Alabama’s justice system.” His favored subjects involve duplicity, corruption and moral indiscretion by the Deep South political elite.
Among the stories he has featured:
Advocacy on behalf of Don Siegelman, a Democratic former governor of Alabama who was convicted on controversial corruption charges.
Broad criticism of Bob Riley, his latest legal adversary’s father, who served as governor of Alabama from 2002 to 2010.
Relentless criticism of the legal profession for, among many other things, its failure at self-regulation.
Karl Rove, the Republican politico who used Alabama to test his Texas-born strategies of politicizing state judges by finagling appointment of pro-business Republicans to a judiciary that had been largely Democratic.
And then there are the more tawdry subjects, like the Riley-Duke stories.
In September 2013 alone, Shuler revealed an alleged past affair involving Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange and a former campaign aide, and he posted a nude photo (allegedly from a gay porn site in 1997) that purported to show William Pryor, a federal circuit judge from Alabama.
Shuler is unapologetic. He said he views his reporting on personal indiscretions as comeuppance for hypocritical public figures who campaign on family and faith but live quite differently.
WhoWhatWhy asked Shuler about his endgame.
“I want to play offense,” said the former sportswriter. “I’m not just playing defense.”
He said he saw a number of legal issues on which he could base “major counterclaims.” Of course, any legal action he brings would go through the same court system that he sees as hopelessly corrupt.
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