By Mary Orndorff Troyan, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON – U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson, whose rulings over 33 years dramatically changed how Alabama treats its employees and most vulnerable citizens, has moved to senior status.
The decision creates a vacancy in the Middle District of Alabama and a chance for President Barack Obama to appoint a successor.
Thompson was 33 when President Jimmy Carter nominated him to the bench in 1980. Thompson became the second African-American federal judge in the state.
His move to senior status, which involves a reduced caseload, was effective Thursday, said Debra Hackett, clerk of U.S. District Court in the Middle District in Montgomery.
“Myron has handled, in my judgment, the most important civil rights cases in Alabama since Frank Johnson,” said U.W. Clemon, a former federal judge in Birmingham. “I stand in awe of him.”
Thompson replaced Johnson on the bench and their work over decades ended discriminatory hiring practices in state agencies, revolutionized care for the mentally ill, and made sure minority voters were treated fairly in elections.
“Judge Thompson was one of the inheritors of Frank Johnson’s mantle, and he did it justice,” said Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “He dealt with some of the most complex and controversial cases of our time and he handled them fairly and thoughtfully.”
As a judge in the state capital, Thompson presided over especially high-profile cases involving public corruption and state policy.
In 2002, Thompson told then-Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore to remove his monument to the Ten Commandments from the Alabama Judicial Building.
More recently, in 2011, Thompson’s commentary in a bribery case – in which he declared that two white state legislators were motivated by racial bias – was cited during arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court as evidence that minorities still need the protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Clemon said Thompson’s legacy will be his “unyielding commitment to equal justice for all.”
Without him, “I think there would be fewer blacks in state positions,” Clemon said. “I think there would be fewer blacks holding elective office. I think state officials would feel somewhat less restricted in imposing various kinds of barriers to the progress of black Alabamians.”
Thompson was born in 1947 in Tuskegee. He earned his undergraduate and law degrees from Yale University and was the first black assistant attorney general in Alabama from 1972-74. Thompson had been in private practice for six years when Carter nominated him to the federal bench.
Whomever Obama nominates to replace Thompson will have to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
Contact Mary Orndorff Troyan at email@example.com