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Campaign-Ad Ruling Spurs Judge To Step Aside in Ala. Finance Case

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An Alabama judge who became a lightning rod for controversy after finding the state's school-finance system unconstitutional in 1993 has stepped aside in the case.

Montgomery Circuit Court Judge Eugene W. Reese removed himself from the case late last month after a state judicial-inquiry panel found that he should be disqualified. The panel based its decision on a television commercial Judge Reese aired last fall in an unsuccessful bid to win a seat on the state supreme court. In the advertisement, he said his decision in the finance case showed that he was willing to make hard decisions that lawmakers would avoid.

The panel found that such a stand allowed for Judge Reese's impartiality to be questioned.

"He used his presiding in the case as an example of his courage and judicial leadership," the panel wrote. "The case is still pending. Those issues on which he publicly declared his courage and leadership are now being presented to him for reconsideration. ... Although no actual bias is shown, none is required where the facts as presented indicate a reasonable basis for the appearance of partiality."

Judge Reese agreed. "This court is hopeful that by this action the focus of this case may now return to the merits and proceed to a timely deposition," he wrote in announcing his decision to step aside.

Another Delay?

But most observers agreed that the development means another delay for the long-running finance saga. Since Judge Reese ruled in 1993 that the state's school-funding program was unconstitutional and did not allow many districts to provide "adequate" schooling, the case has been bogged down in political turmoil. (See Education Week, Aug. 2, 1995.)

Since taking office in January, Gov. Fob James Jr., a Republican, repeatedly has questioned Judge Reese's ruling. The state attorney general filed a motion earlier this year to have the judge removed from the case.

Opponents of the decision, who have made a motion to dismiss Judge Reese's order setting the boundaries for a school-funding plan that would meet the court's muster, were pleased to learn that they will have an audience with a new judge. They would like to convince her that Judge Reese's decision wrongly went beyond the purpose of the original lawsuit by ordering sweeping school reforms.

The case has been reassigned to Montgomery Circuit Court Judge Sally Greenhaw.

Representatives of the poor school districts that originally sued the state said they were not deterred by the change of judges, even though it will take some time for Judge Greenhaw to become familiar with the case.

"The attacks from our governor had already put Judge Reese in a situation that would have been difficult to handle," said DeWayne Key, a retired school superintendent who is working with the Alabama Coalition for Equity, the group of 36 school districts that sued the state. "There will be some redefining of exactly where we are as a state in resolving the case, but we are confident that this will have a minimal impact on what must happen."

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