Roy Moore's Holy War

Chief Justice Roy Moore of the Alabama Supreme Court remains defiant even in defeat. For the past year he's fought a lawsuit seeking the removal of a two-ton Ten Commandments monument that he sneaked into the Alabama Judicial Building in 2001. He flouted two federal court orders to dislodge the granite sculpture, until last week, when he exhausted his appeals to block the injunctions and was suspended by a state judicial ethics panel for his impudence--a move that could result in his dismissal. His pugnacity--reminiscent of Alabama Gov. George Wallace's--only enhanced his heroic stature among the religious conservatives who flocked to Montgomery. "He's the Patrick Henry of 2003," said Phil Faxton, a preacher from Ohio who camped on the courthouse steps.

For Moore, 56, it's a fitting culmination of a career marked by controversy. Soon after his 1992 appointment as a circuit court judge in Gadsden, Ala., Moore held prayers in his courtroom and adorned a wall with a hand-carved plaque of the Ten Commandments. That prompted an unsuccessful 1994 suit that initiated his steady rise from obscurity to national renown. Along the way, Moore has proved adept at garnering publicity as he cloaked himself in the twin mantles of Christian conservatism and states' rights. "Those are incredibly popular themes in Alabama politics," says Richard Cohen of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which represented one of the plaintiffs in the most recent suit. "He has tremendous appeal." Moore's spokesmen could not be reached for comment.

From childhood, Moore had a hardy, competitive streak. He grew up modestly in Etowah County, Ala., studied at West Point, served in Vietnam and eventually received a law degree at the University of Alabama. After losing a 1982 race for circuit judge, he decamped to Australia and later dabbled in professional kickboxing. He finally found his metier as a judge in 1992 and seemed to relish blending his religious convictions with his jurisprudence. James Hedgspeth, the district attorney in Gadsden who used to practice in Moore's court, recalls that the judge would laminate newspaper clippings about his Ten Commandments battles and meticulously paste them in scrapbooks. He embraced that notoriety in his 2000 campaign for chief justice, trumpeting himself as the "Ten Commandments judge" on billboards. In his current fight over the monument, Moore crafted his appellate strategy in a way that ensured a headlong collision with the federal courts, says J. Gorman Houston Jr., a fellow justice on the state Supreme Court. "He wanted a confrontation."

That's exactly what he got. Late last week, at the height of Moore's perfect storm, the courthouse superintendent was poring over the building's engineering plans to figure out how to move the mammoth monument without rupturing the floor. Meanwhile, Moore retreated from view after learning that he must now defend himself before the judicial court that will hear the ethics complaint against him. And in the end, prayer may be the judge's best defense.