The Anatomy of a Judgeship
By Marie Stokes Jemison
Vol. 2, No. 2., 1979, pp. 9-11
A vacancy loomed on the Federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and Jamie Ledlow Shores set about to fill it.
Soon after Janie Ledlow Shores won election in 1974 on her second try for the Alabama Supreme Court, she hankered for a bigger prize. A vacancy loomed on the Federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and the first woman in Alabama and the third in the nation to sit on a state’s highest court set about to fill it.
“I never did yearn for the U.S. Supreme Court even – just the Fifth Circuit.” She knew where the real power resided. The Fifth had been the freedom train for Blacks in the fifties and sixties and Janie wanted to be part of the major legal decisions affecting the late seventies and eighties. So, she went for it when the vacancy was to be filled in 1976. During that presidential year the candidate Jimmy Carter promised judgeships on merit, not politics.
She was the only woman to apply to the first nominating commission appointed by the new President and his Attorney General, Griffin Bell. Although Shores and Bell were old buddies in the legal world and her qualifications as a legal scholar were renowned, her selection was not in the cards. Robert Vance, the witty, urbane, canny chairman of the Alabama Democratic Party, was the select of destiny this time. Janie’s friend Vance had made a national name for himself in the eleven years he headed the party as the Chief of Alabama’s anti-Wallace forces. His law firm has profited handsomely by his fame as the voice of reason and progress in Alabama’s gothic politics.
Now with George Wallace in his last Hurrah, a lifetime federal judgeship tempted. Who could deny him? Certainly not Allen and Sparkman, the two senators to whom he had been duly obedient and helpful. Certainly, not the southern president to whom he had delivered the state by a small margin. The charming Vance dazzled the commission. Janie came off nervous and unsure. She was surprised that she needed constituent letters. “Somebody told me I didn’t need a lot of letters. I got the wrong signals.”
Vance won handily.
After not even making the list of all White
males, Janie returned to her active, visible role on the state court. She wrote opinions during 1977 and 1978 which proves the case for female judges. On April 22, 1977, the Alabama Supreme Court voted that a married woman had a right to sell her own property without her husband’s consent. Justice Shores wrote the opinion.
“There is no provision of the (Alabama) constitution”, she wrote, “which would permit the legislature to deny married women rights possessed by all other adults.” “The authority to do so must be found in that document and cannot rest upon an ancient myth that married women are presumed more needful of protection of their own interests than other adults, male or female.” Alabama was the last state in the Union to deny married women that privilege.
Next to fall was the archaic married woman’s will. Under Alabama law, a woman who made a will during her first marriage was required to make a second one if she remarried. Failing to know this legal secret, as was the case with many women, the legal consequence was that second husband, on the death of the wife, shared her estate with her children. It mattered not that the woman had not wished her husband to inherit. This was the law until Janie Shores wrote the opinion striking it down.
In October 20, 1978, President Carter signed The Omnibus Judgeship Act. The law stated “The Congress takes note that only 1 percent of federal judges are women.
Since the last meeting three members of the commission had been “rotated” off. The significant change was the replacement of the “militant” Florida Black female, Francina Thomas. Charlotte Dominick of Birmingham, Alabama, a member of both commissions said, “Francina was fantastic. She asked questions no one else was willing to ask. She probably was replaced by Griffin Bell because they thought she had an axe that is being both a woman and a Black.” Ulrick Lincoln, one time a lawyer in the Department of Justice replaced Francina Thomas. In 1979 Lincoln is a member of a large Tampa law firm.
Nevertheless, Janie felt good about her chances. Again she was the single woman to apply from Alabama. Women were so anxious to see her chosen that she looked for no competition from her home state. The kudoes came fast.
From a legal scholar: “Justice Shores has the ability to isolate and discard the minutiae of a lawsuit and focus on the crucial issues which must be confronted. More importantly she has the unparalleled capacity to appreciate the logical and practical ramifications of her decisions”.
Without the legal gobble-de-gook, a lawyer who had practiced before the court: “What a penetrating mind. She sees right through the bullshit into the heart of the matter”.
Then in mid-January 1979, the legendary “real” governor of Alabama federal Judge Frank Johnson, entered the race. Johnson and Shores were thick as clabber. When Janie was a poor, scrawny, teen-ager riding the bus from Loxley to Mobile, Wallace Johnson, brother to Frank, was in the law firm which gave her a job. A Johnson sister married a cousin of Janie’s in 1955 and the friendship between the future judges, Johnson and Shores, began in earnest.
“I love Frank,” says Janie. “When I heard he had applied, I called him and said I thought I ought to get out and work for him. He said, ‘No, don’t do that, Janie. Stay in’. After I hung up I wondered why he hadn’t called me.”
She went to see her old friend, Attorney General Griffin Bell. He had seemed genuinely grieved that she struck out the first time, even telling her that he had replaced the “militant” Black woman who had given her trouble. He did not tell her that Francina Thomas’ replacement would be the one to do her in. “The President wants to see women and minorities on the list,” he told her.
A few days before the February meeting, Ulrick Lincoln called Janie. He told her that he had received a letter alluding to a conflict of interest on her part in a legal matter involving her husband, James Shores, Jr.
“I thought it was decent of him to warn me,” she said. “He advised me to be prepared to be questioned by the commission on the allegations. I called the lawyers in the case and was assured that I had at no time intervened nor was my name a part of the case in any way. I was not told who originated the letter. It was not until later that I found out the letter was from George Lewis Bailes.”
Bob Vance picked Bailes to succeed him as Chairman of the Democratic Party. They were old and trusted friends.
Bailes is a real estate man and a former Alabama State Senator with a long smoldering vendetta against James Shores. Shores reciprocates, even going to the extreme in challenging Bailes’ Party seat in the 1978 elections. The letter went to only the three corporate lawyers on the
commission. Justice Shores was questioned extensively by the commission members on the case in which her husband was a party, but she was not. It does not appear that any of the male candidates were interrogated about their wives’ possible irregularities.
Bailes says that he wrote the letter as a private citizen not as Party Chairman. In the public eye there is not a dime’s worth of difference. Women had already taken his number when he came out on television in 1978 against the Equal Rights Amendment. This attack on Janie’s integrity incensed fair-minded people all over the state. The letter writer did not say why he chose the three members to receive the letter nor did he divulge his motives.
Apparently Bailes’ letter did not cut any ice with the commission but did contribute additional fuel for the fire that would consume Janie. The real screw was at the top. Despite the continuous extravagant presidential pleas to choose women and minorities for the list, the commission seemed to hear a different order. Florida and Georgia dominated in the membership of the eleven member group with two from Alabama and one from Mississippi. The Georgians were reportably well-schooled. It was noticed that the commission president, Dubose Ausley, a Floridian, when stuck on a point quizzically turned to the Georgian end of the table. The surprise was Ulrick Lincoln, the swing vote. He voted not only against Janie, but his Black brothers as well.
Court watchers surmise that despite the Carter-Bell protestations on democratizing the list, the actuality was too hot to handle. Frank Johnson was all along the object of their affections. To put the popular Janie on the list and then bump her would offend all those uppity women out there and Carter had enough trouble in 1980. Griffin Bell’s finger prints were on the glass. He had restructured the 1976 commission and Ulrick Lincoln had come right out of his shop.
Reaction to the list of all White males was swift. David Cohen, top dog at Common Cause, the people’s Lobby, presumptiously asserted that “no woman or Black would feel the least rejected if Carter passed over them in favor of Johnson.”
Judith Crittenden, Birmingham attorney and member of the Alabama Women’s Political Caucus took another view. At a press conference she expressed “shock and disappointment” over the commission’s failure to include either a woman or a Black among the nominations. “Women’s groups are particularly disappointed in the list of White candidates in the light of the President’s mandate and the presence of highly qualified minority and female applicants.”
Of course, every Black and White person in the race from Alabama knew the game was over when the giant, Frank Johnson, caught the ball. The only faint hope was the possibility of a second circuit judgeship for Alabama which did not materialize. The point in this bit of duplicity on the part of the President and his people is that women took Carter seriously when he said he wanted a selection free of political influence (with a qualified female candidate, a second judgeship seemed in the cards.) As usual, we were naive.
The district judgeships in Alabama are now over. The nominating commission for these positions did select two women for the list. Neither was chosen by the Senators, possibly because neither was as qualified as one of the other two women not chosen. But this time, Blacks got their chance with two newly created federal judgeships. Maybe next time we women will get ours. I wouldn’t bet on it.
Marie Stokes Jemison is a free-lance writer living in Birmingham, Alabama, actively working for the ERA.