State’s first black federal judge to step down

Published 5:52 pm Wednesday, January 21, 2009

BIRMINGHAM — Alabama’s first black federal judge is leaving the bench next month after nearly three decades, spelling out his plans in a letter to President Barack Obama praising the nation’s first black chief executive.

U.S. District Judge U.W. Clemon, in a letter made public Wednesday, said he was “ecstatic” over Obama’s victory, which he called the fulfillment of a lifelong dream to see an African-American president.

Clemon, a one-time civil rights attorney and state senator who sings in a choir at his church, wrote that it became clear to him last spring “that Almighty God had ordained (Obama) as the next president of this great nation.”

Clemon, 65, will join the prominent Birmingham law firm of White Arnold & Dowd P.C. on Feb. 1.

Clemon announced plans to retire last fall but more recently timed his departure to coincide with Obama’s inauguration, a move that guaranteed a Democratic president would appoint his successor. Clemon was appointed by Democratic President Jimmy Carter in 1980.

Before accepting the judgeship, he represented clients who challenged legalized segregation in Birmingham. He also was elected to the Alabama Legislature, becoming in 1974 one of the state’s first two black senators since Reconstruction.

The judge’s letter to Obama defended his own liberal record on the bench, which included a recent decision to jail an Alabama sheriff who profited off feeding prisoners skimpy meals and his orders for light sentences for former HealthSouth Corp. executives who pleaded guilty in a huge fraud.

“In the time I have served as a federal trial judge, I have conscientiously tried to administer fair and impartial justice under the law, tempered with generous drops of mercy,” Clemon wrote to Obama in the letter, dated on Inauguration Day.

Clemens presided over multiple notable cases, including a lawsuit filed by Lilly Ledbetter of Jacksonville, a former manager at a Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. plant in Gadsden. Jurors awarded her $3 million after finding that she was paid less than male managers. But the Republican-dominated U.S. Supreme Court threw out the verdict, saying she waited too late to sue, even though she didn’t learn of the inequity until far past the deadline.

Ledbetter was a guest on Obama’s inaugural train ride to Washington, and the president and congressional Democrats are pushing the so-called Lilly Ledbetter bill that would make it easier to pursue wage discrimination cases.

Earlier this month, Clemon jailed Morgan County Sheriff Greg Bartlett after ruling the sheriff purposely underfed prisoners to save money and make a profit under a Depression-era law that makes it legal for Alabama sheriffs to pocket money off jail feeding operations.

Bartlett, who legally pocketed about $210,000 in three years, agreed to give up future profits and feed prisoners better to get out after one night in a federal prison.