Can't afford to pay your fines? In Circuit Judge Marvin Wiggins' court, you apparently have to donate blood to avoid immediate arrest, which has publications throughout the nation and even around the world comparing the Alabama judiciary to vampires or blood-sucking parasites.
There is so much wrong with Wiggins' actions that the mind boggles; so much, in fact, that the Alabama Court of the Judiciary should immediately suspend him from the bench pending an investigation and his ultimate removal as a judge.
First, coercing people to donate blood creates a serious public health threat. People with diseases who should not give blood might feel compelled to lie to the questions designed to eliminate donors whose blood might infect recipients. For that reason, the agency that received the blood donations coerced by Wiggins had to destroy most of it.
Careful selection of donors is a key step in preventing the spread of such viral infections as AIDS and hepatitis through blood transfusions, and coercing people to donate undermines that preventive step.
Second, Wiggins (or any other judge) does not have the legal authority to coerce blood donations with the threat of immediate arrest. As a judge, that is something there is simply no excuse for him not to know.
Regular readers probably remember Wiggins as the man whom Gov. Robert Bentley removed from the Alabama State University board of trustees for having a conflict of interest.
What they may not remembers is that it was not the first time the judge faced conflict of interest issues.
Several years ago, the Court of the Judiciary issued a public reprimand of Wiggins for refusing to remove himself from a court case in which he had a conflict of interest. That case, like the allegations involving Wiggins and the ASU board of trustees, involved family members of the judge.
According to the findings by the Court of the Judiciary, which hears complaints against judges, Wiggins involved himself in a court proceeding that involved members of his family even though the motions had not been assigned to him. In a case involving a subpoena in a voter fraud investigation by the state Attorney General's Office, the reprimand said Wiggins quashed the subpoena and search warrant even though he knew that his sister, brother-in-law and first cousin were among those being investigated and that he had no jurisdiction in the case.
"The impartiality of the judiciary is a right of the citizens, not a private right of judges," the reprimand stated. "The public must be able to trust that our judges will dispense justice fairly and impartially. Judge Wiggins, by his actions, disregarded that trust."
In addition to the public reprimand, Wiggins was suspended without pay for 90 days. But all that pales in comparison with the latest outrage to come out of Wiggins' courtroom.
According to news reports, Wiggins told defendants that if they couldn’t pay their fines or fees, they should donate blood at a mobile blood donation unit in the courthouse parking lot. For those who did not donate blood, the judge said "the sheriff has enough handcuffs.”
An attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which filed a complaint with the Judicial Inquiry Commission, called the threat of blood or jail "a shocking disregard for not only judicial ethics but for the constitutional rights of defendants.”
Under the U.S. Constitution, people who cannot afford to pay their fines or debts cannot be sentenced to prison.
In a district as poor as the one Wiggins represents in west Alabama, it is difficult to see how he can continue to be elected with such callous treatment of indigents. But that is a matter for the voters.
But the Judicial Inquiry Commission and the Court of the Judiciary have a solemn obligation to protect the integrity of the judicial process. Canon 2B of the Canon of Judicial Ethics calls for all Alabama judges to "avoid conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice which brings the judicial office into disrepute."
How is this for disrepute? A headline on the website of the Guardian, a national newspaper in the United Kingdom, asks "When did Alabama judges become vampires?" The headline on the website of the Sunday Times, the United Kingdom's largest newspaper, reads: "A pint of blood is judge's pound of flesh."
Similar headlines abound in national and international news outlets, making the Alabama judicial system a world-wide laughingstock.
The Court of the Judiciary allowed Wiggins to remain on the bench in 2009 when he outrageously abused his judicial authority to intervene on behalf of his relatives. So in a way, the Alabama judicial system only has itself to blame for this latest embarrassment.
Wiggins needs to be removed from the bench. If not, the embarrassments to the state and the judiciary only will get worse.
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