U.S. District Courts in Alabama


Judge Frank M. Johnson was the target of Frank M. JohnsonIn Alabama, three federal court districts form a subset of the federal court system headed by the U.S. Supreme Court. During the 1950s and 1960s, these courts in Alabama were involved in numerous landmark decisions, often involving civil rights and prayer in the public schools. Many of these cases were presided over by Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr., of Alabama's Middle District Court. Some of these cases ultimately were reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court and led to the establishment of national policies in those areas. In more recent years these district courts have rendered important decisions involving prison overcrowding, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and discrimination in the work place. It was a Middle District judge who found that a Ten Commandments monument placed in the State Supreme Court Building violated the First Amendment prohibition of government acts that promote or "establish" religion.

The U.S. District Courts for Alabama consist of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama, based in Birmingham; the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, based in Montgomery with courthouses in Dothan and Opelika; and the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama, with courthouses in Mobile and Selma.

The Federal Court System 

The federal judiciary is organized hierarchically and geographically. At the top of the pyramid is the Supreme Court of the United States, the ultimate arbiter of what the Constitution and laws mean. At the bottom are the courts of original jurisdiction or trial courts. In between are 12 intermediate appellate courts; first appeals of trial outcomes are heard at this level.

Federal courts settle legal disputes over the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution and federal statutory law; state courts serve the same function regarding state law. Courts may be classified as original jurisdiction, which means that they settle questions of fact, such as guilt or innocence, usually through trials. Appellate courts, on the other hand, deal with questions of law, and they evaluate lower court decisions with respect to adherence to due process protections and statutory and constitutional interpretations. In addition, courts may be classified by the nature of their jurisdiction, whether general or specialized.

The U.S. Congress has, over time, created numerous specialized courts, including the Court of International Trade, Tax Court, and Court of Military Appeals. Judges on these courts are nominated by the U.S. Senate and confirmed by the president. They serve for fixed terms, which in some cases are renewable; they often are referred to as "Article I" judges because they are created by law under the legislative powers provided to Congress under Article I of the Constitution. General jurisdiction judges hear all types of civil and criminal cases except those reserved for specialized courts. They are called "Article III" judges because that article created the Supreme Court and all inferior courts. Article III judges are nominated by the president and must be confirmed by a majority of the U.S. Senate. They serve "during good behavior," which is the equivalent of a life appointment (though most retire at some point during their service) barring impeachment or findings of acts of malfeasance.

U.S. District Courts are federal trial courts of general jurisdiction. Their judges also are nominated by the U.S. Senate and confirmed by the president. Each state is guaranteed at least one of the 94 currently existing judicial districts. Several sparsely populated states have only one. The number that each state is allotted is a function of need or caseload. California, New York, and Texas—with large populations and a high number of caseloads—each have four, the maximum number. Other states, such as Wisconsin and Mississippi, have two. Alabama has the three named above. The system is decentralized still further—the Middle District, for example, also holds court in both Dothan and Opelika.

Judges and Cases 

When Alabama became a state in 1819, it was initially a single district state. The district was then divided into the Northern and Southern Districts in 1824, although the same judge presided over both districts. The Middle District followed in 1839, again with only one judge for all three districts. Currently, Alabama has 14 district judgeships, distributed as follows: three each in the Middle and Southern Districts, and eight in the Northern District. Plaintiffs who receive an unfavorable decision by a district court (either from a jury or a judge) can appeal the decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, which covers Alabama, Florida, and Georgia and is based in Atlanta.

U. W. Clemon was Alabama's first African American U. W. ClemonDuring its history, 56 judges have served on the district bench in Alabama. The first judge was Charles Tait, who was confirmed on May 13, 1820, and resigned in 1826. He was a Virginia native, born in 1768 and actually spent most of his previous career in Georgia as a state judge and U.S. senator. The first African American to serve is Judge U. W. Clemon, who was appointed to the Northern District by President Jimmy Carter in 1980. He was born in Fairfield, Jefferson County, in 1943 and graduated from Miles College and Columbia Law School. He practiced law in Birmingham before his appointment and also served a term in the Alabama State Senate. A native of Pensacola, Florida, Sharon Lovelace Blackburn is the first female Alabama district judge, nominated by President George H. W. Bush to the Northern District in 1991. She is a graduate of the University of Alabama and the Cumberland School of Law. She clerked for two judges, worked for Legal Services, and was an assistant U.S. attorney (prosecuting attorney for the Department of Justice). The Alabama district judge with the longest tenure has been Harry Theophilus Toulmin from Mobile, who served from 1887 to 1916. In addition to previous experience as a state judge and legislator, Toulmin was a colonel in the Confederate Army.

Constitutional Issues 

Many issues arising in the state of Alabama have led to important Supreme Court interpretations of the Constitution. If the actions of a state government involve rights that citizens are guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution, they are reviewable by the Supreme Court of the United States. One path to Supreme Court review is for the case to proceed through the various levels of the state judiciary, culminating in the state's highest court (usually called the Supreme Court), and from there be accepted for review. In Orr v. Orr (440 U.S. 268, 1979), the Supreme Court held that Alabama's statute requiring husbands but not wives to pay alimony violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In U.S. v. Paradise (480 U.S. 149, 1987), the Supreme Court upheld a ruling in Alabama's Middle District that racial quotas were constitutional, provided that they were closely tailored as a remedy for a "history of discrimination."

In addition, state action may be reviewed initially by a U.S. district court and then work its way up the federal judicial system. Numerous landmark Supreme Court cases have originated in the district courts of Alabama. Reynolds v. Sims (377 U.S. 533, 1964), which originated in the Middle District, was one of the early legislative apportionment cases that contributed to the "one man [sic], one vote" principle and increased state Senate representation for large voting districts. The challenge was upheld by the Supreme Court. Wallace v. Jaffree (472 U.S. 38, 1985) was an important case in establishing the limits on prayer in public schools and overturned a decision made by the Southern District that approved of school prayer. In Frontiero v. Richardson (411 U.S. 677. 1973), the Supreme Court reversed a Middle District decision and held that an Army regulation in which women soldiers had to document that their spouses were dependent upon them for benefits (when it was assumed that spouses of male soldiers were dependents) was unconstitutional gender discrimination. Judge Frank M. Johnson of the Middle District court found the Alabama prison system's overcrowded living conditions violated the Eighth and Fourteenth amendments in Pugh v. Locke, (406 U.S. 318 (M.D. Ala. 1976). A circuit court agreed with the assessment but said there was no constitutional basis for the decision, and the Supreme Court said the state was protected by sovereign immunity.

In more recent years, Milton Ash and Patricia Garrett, two employees of the University of Alabama system, alleged job discrimination because of their asthma and breast cancer, respectively. The Northern District court ruled in Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama v. Garrett (531 U.S. 356, 2001) that the university was protected under the Eleventh Amendment. When the Supreme Court looked at the case, it decided that individuals may not sue a state for federal damages in federal court, thus finding Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act unconstitutional. In 2006, the Northern District court heard the pay discrimination case, Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company (550 U.S. 2007), and a jury decided that Goodyear owed Lilly Ledbetter back wages and damages because she had not been compensated the same as her male peers. The Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Goodyear, as did a majority of the Supreme Court, which stated that the claimant had not brought suit within the time period allowed by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed into law the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which would make it easier for workers to sue for pay discrimination.

Additional Resources 

Freyer, Tony, and Timothy Dixon. Democracy and Judicial Independence: A History of the Federal Courts of Alabama, 1820-1994. Brooklyn: Carlson Publishing, 1995.

Yarbrough, Tinsley E. Judge Frank Johnson and Human Rights in Alabama. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1981.

Gerard Gryski
Auburn University


Published September 3, 2008
Last updated November 1, 2012