Editorial Roundup: Alabama

Cullman Times. July 17, 2021.

Editorial: Now’s the time for back-to-school shopping

This weekend, when you buy certain back-to-school items, you won’t pay sales tax on those items. The sales tax holiday is a cost-savings for parents purchasing the items needed to get kids off to a good start for the school year. It is also a great time to purchase supplies to donate to students who can’t afford new back-to-school items.

The United Way is holding its 4th Annual “Stuff the Bus” project this weekend and we encourage everyone who is able to contribute to helping our students start the new school year right.

Items needed include notebooks, pens, pencils, glue sticks, index cards, binders, scissors, crayons, colored pencils, and hand sanitizer.

In addition to the main drop off location at the Cullman County Courthouse, 13 businesses have partnered with United Way of Cullman County to collect school supplies at their business locations; just look for the “Stuff the Bus” signs. If you can’t get out to shop this weekend, you can always send a donation to United Way of Cullman County, 304 1st Ave. NE, Cullman, AL 35056 designated for school supplies.

Stuff the Bus isn’t the only opportunity to give. The Cullman Research Center, for example, donate 140 pounds of school supplies and canned goods to Cullman Caring for Kids this week. As a business that’s new to Cullman, the Research Center wanted to show its support of the community. They identified the need for school supplies and food to help students and their families begin the school year.

Hunger is a real problem for students. According to Feeding America, one in every five children in Alabama are facing hunger. Studies have shown that children who experience any level of food insecurity perform worse educationally than their peers. Even before they are old enough to start school, children who don’t have enough to eat are already cognitively, emotionally and physically behind their peers, according to Children’s Health Watch.

Cullman County is a generous community and no more so than when it comes to looking out for the well-being of our children. This weekend, we encourage all who are able to stuff the bus full of school supplies to ensure students have a great first day of school and are ready to learn. And, if you can, consider making a donation to Cullman Caring for Kids or other food banks in our area. These are little ways we can show students how much their community supports and cares for them.

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Decatur Daily. July 14, 2021.

Editorial: Secrecy in Blakely trial inexcusable

The Issue

In an intolerable start to the corruption trial of Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely, jury selection began in secret. While the judge ultimately opened the proceedings Tuesday afternoon, it is unfortunate that it took a court filing from The Daily and other media outlets before transparency prevailed.

Open criminal court proceedings are a fundamental component of our court system, a system that at its core recognizes that jurors — members of the public — are the ultimate arbiters of justice. Whatever may be the case in Russia or China, in America the First and Sixth amendments to the U.S. Constitution and numerous court rulings have made clear that the transparency of criminal proceedings is paramount.

As far back as 1908, the Alabama Supreme Court noted the “universal policy underlying the judicial systems of this country (that) secrecy in the exercise of judicial power … is not tolerable or justifiable.”

This fundamental precept is especially important in public corruption trials such as the one that began Monday in the prosecution of Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely. Unlike most criminal trials, prosecutions for the alleged corruption of a public official are focused not on a single victim, but on the betrayal of the public trust.

It was therefore startling when the public that was allegedly betrayed was barred Monday and part of Tuesday from viewing jury selection as Blakely’s trial began.

In those rare occasions where courts have upheld limited closure of court proceedings, the Alabama Supreme Court has emphasized that it should only be after the trial judge articulates in an order “specific, on-the-record findings demonstrating that closure is essential to preserve higher values and the closure order is narrowly tailored to serve those interests.”

No such order had been issued explaining the decision as of Tuesday, despite the fact the retired judge who ordered the secret proceedings has served 30 years on the bench, including 12 on the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals.

Judge Pamela Baschab, appointed to preside over the trial after the elected Limestone County judges recused themselves, opened the proceedings to the public late Tuesday after Tennessee Valley Media, which includes The Decatur Daily, joined other media outlets in filing a motion asking that the proceedings be open to the public.

The Alabama Supreme Court in a 1993 ruling regarding the closure of pretrial proceedings reiterated precedent that “since the development of trial by jury, the process of selection of jurors has presumptively been a public process with exceptions only for good cause shown.”

“Conducting pretrial criminal proceedings in an atmosphere of secrecy is offensive to the general public and undermines the public trust essential to an effective judicial system,” the justices wrote.

The U.S. Supreme Court also has weighed in on the issue. In a case dealing specifically with jury selection, the court in 1984 noted that colonial courts adopted the British practice of ensuring that jurors were selected in the open, a practice that continues. “Openness thus enhances both the basic fairness of the criminal trial and the appearance of fairness so essential to public confidence in the system,” the court explained.

Trust was especially undermined in this case, where Blakely — who in his 10th term is the longest serving sheriff in the state — faces multiple felony counts alleging he stole campaign donations, got interest-free loans and solicited money from employees. Prosecutors have tied these charges to Blakely’s alleged gambling habit.

But some Limestone County residents are no doubt suspicious of the charges. Is Blakely, a rare Democratic official in north Alabama, the target of a politically motivated prosecution by a Republican attorney general as the sheriff’s lawyers have suggested?

The people cannot be expected to have faith in a system that’s hidden from them. Regardless of the ultimate verdict, a process begun in secret will shake the public’s confidence that justice prevailed. We applaud the court for opening the proceedings after a motion was filed, but it is unfortunate the proceedings began behind closed doors.

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