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Captain America

From Alabama to Australia. Another kind of education.

J. Zane Walley

"The Ten Commandments’ Judge" knows what it is to make a cotton crop with a team of mules. From his father he also learned to "honor God, cherish family, and love his country."
Photo © J. Zane Walley

"Have we become so ignorant of our nation’s history that we have forgotten the reason for the adoption of the Bill of Rights? It was meant to restrict the federal government’s power over the states, not to restrict the states from doing what the federal government can do. The time has come to recover the valiant courage of our forefathers, who understood that faith and freedom are inseparable and that they are worth fighting for."—Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore

The sun-drenched Chihuahuan Desert sand became a palette of America’s history for Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore as he sketched a litany of America’s rights to a quiet audience of rapt listeners. As he spoke, he wrote his line of reasoning in the dust with a twig, then erased it with a plowboy’s large hand, and began the next epoch.

Chief Moore spoke and wrote from memory for more than two hours without a single note. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the writings of America’s Founding Fathers, biblical quotations and case law flowed from his mind, mouth and hand in an unbroken stream approaching poetry.

Poetry was an apt description for Chief Moore’s constitutional lesson, for he delivered it in a mild Southern accent accentuated with a heartfelt passion and palpable genuineness. Only when he quoted Patrick Henry did his voice rise to thunder.

Judge Moore is a national icon, catapulted into the national limelight in 1995, when as a circuit judge in Etowah County, Ala., he placed a hand-carved wooden plaque of the Ten Commandments on his courtroom wall. That simple act set off a storm of controversy that branded him as the "Ten Commandments’ Judge." This is a label that he wears with delight but is an oversimplification of his views on the origins of American law.

He spent years studying the writings of the English legal scholar Sir William Blackstone, whose commentaries inspired America’s founders, the Constitution, and scores of historical documents and diaries.

"These were things that had never been taught me, never been taught other lawyers," he says. "It was a different kind of education; it was inquiring; it was absorbing the truth and I couldn’t get enough."

He is convinced, and prepared to persuade everybody else, that there was no law on the books, no freedom enjoyed by Americans, that had not come first from the Creator. Lines from his recent poem, "America the Beautiful," echo his view of the American judicial system. "We’ve voted in a government that’s rotting at the core, appointing Godless judges who throw reason out the door...."

Ranching folks from across the West had gathered at the Jones’ family Wineglass Ranch picnic ground in south-central New Mexico at the base of the Cornudas Mountains for an old-fashioned "dinner on the ground." Many simply wanted to meet the legendary judge after he spoke at the "Sovereignty and Your Rights Seminar," sponsored by the Paragon Foundation and Eagle Forum in Alamogordo, New Mexico. He did not disappoint them, not because of his status, but because he is cut from the same tough cloth as the sun-hardened ranchers.

Judge Moore grew up in rural Alabama as a farm kid in what he calls a "poor Christian home," admiring a father who "lived what he believed." A close friend of the judge, Alabama attorney Frank Bailey, describes Moore as "just pure country. Heck, he grew up poor. He knows what it is to make a cotton crop with a team of mules and cut wood with a crosscut saw. The frame house his family lived in was built on rock piles for corner posts and had no indoor plumbing. I’ll tell you, Roy never forgot his rural roots and his daddy taught him to honor God, cherish family, and love his country."

In the ninth grade, Roy saw a movie about the United States Military Academy. "It just aroused something in me," Moore says. So with the encouragement of his parents he studied hard and in 1965 received an appointment to West Point. "My daddy hocked his toolbox to get the $300 to get me physically to the academy," he says. "We didn’t have to live off anyone."

Graduating from West Point in 1969, Moore was stationed in Germany for 16 months before shipping to Vietnam as a military police officer. His troops nicknamed him Captain America for his strict adherence to military regulations. "I handed out a lot of Article 15s [disciplinary measures that do not warrant trial by court-martial]. That didn’t make me very popular. At night, I used to take sandbags and put them under my bed and around my barrack so that if anyone exploded anything it wouldn’t kill me."

Moore left the Army in 1974, graduated from the Alabama School of Law in 1977, and began work as an assistant district attorney in his native Etowah County. He ran afoul of the court system because of his public criticism of the court’s inefficiencies; resigned bitterly from the D.A.’s office; lost a bid for a circuit-court judgeship in 1982; went broke; moved to Texas to train as a professional full-contact karate fighter; and later to Australia to wrangle wild cattle as an outback cowboy.

The cowboy’s life and the searingly hot, harsh, vast spaces of Australia suited Moore perfectly. He spent nine months in what sardonic Aussies call "the back of beyond," mustering wild cattle in the red Simpson Desert and remote bush areas in Queensland. "It was like going back in America 100 years. It was wonderful," he recalls. "Everything was built by hand. We drank rainwater that was gathered in a barrel on the roof. We killed cattle when we wanted meat. We stripped it right there on the field."

It seemed that being in New Mexico’s Chihuahuan Desert with a bunch of working ranchers reminded the chief justice of his cowboy days in Australia. His eyes wandered happily across the stark landscape to the Guadalupe Mountains, the Cerro Diablo and Sierra Tinaja Pinta, as he continued to reflect on his days in the outback. "The experience just gave me a bigger perspective of life. It was something God gave me that I didn’t know existed. It showed me that all my efforts to do what I wanted to do, when they were defeated, ended up in a blessing."

His blessings to some would be a burden. In 1997, Federal Circuit Court Judge Charles Price ordered Moore to remove the Ten Commandments’ plaque from the Etowah County courtroom. Moore firmly refused, stating that, "the Ten Commandments are the foundation of western civilization and American law. What they’re coming against is not me, but…against truth."

Paragon Foundation Chairman Bob Jones listens as Moore speaks passionately about American rights. Photo © J. Zane Walley

Judge Price threatened to remove it forcibly. Moore responded, "If the feds want this plaque down, tell them to send U.S. marshals to tear it down." The then-Governor of Alabama James Fob intervened, saying that he would, "call out the State Police and mobilize the National Guard, if necessary, to prevent anyone from attempting to remove the plaque."

The plaque stayed firmly nailed to the courthouse wall.

In 2000, Moore was elected to serve as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. He promptly authorized the placement of a two-ton, granite Ten Commandments’ monument in the rotunda of the Alabama Judicial Building. That drew instant and serious fire. Two separate court cases have been filed against Chief Justice Moore by plaintiffs who are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the Southern Poverty Law Center. These lawsuits have positioned well-known civil rights attorney Morris Dees against constitutionalist Roy Moore.

Justice Moore’s experiences, beliefs, tribulations and knowledge were important to folks assembled at the Wineglass. Most were beleaguered federal land ranchers who strongly related to Moore’s unbending stand against the federal courts. G. B. Oliver III is a rancher and executive director of the Paragon Foundation. "Roy Moore makes us think about what it would be like if we restored our tattered Constitution to its origins," Oliver says. "In standing against U.S. court orders, he is seeking to reestablish the rule of law against a federal government that is acting illegally by assuming powers that the Founding Fathers specifically left to the individual states. Chief Moore sets the example for all Americans that we can reclaim self-government by standing up for our rights."

Jay Walley lives in Lincoln, N.M. He is executive director of Eco-Logic and a frequent contributor to Range.

Fall 2003 Contents

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