MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The Rev. Jay Cooper quickly lists some the things Lyn Stuart does for First United Methodist Church of Bay Minette. Among them: teaching Sunday school, singing in the choir and cooking three out of four Wednesday night suppers.
Stuart’s elevation as the state’s acting chief justice, Cooper said, hasn’t cost her a step.
“I don’t know when she sleeps,” Cooper said in a phone interview Thursday afternoon. “With all her responsibilities with the Supreme Court, she’s one of those people you think of when you think about the church. She’s never said no, always says yes.”
Stuart, the senior member of the Supreme Court, has led the state’s judiciary since May when ethics charges against Chief Justice Roy Moore led to his suspension. The Court of the Judiciary Sept. 30 suspended Moore for the rest of his term, which ends in 2019.
Moore is appealing that ruling. Whatever the result, Stuart will continue to lead the state judiciary for the foreseeable future.
The three-term Republican justice was unavailable for an interview this week. But those who work with and know Stuart said she’s equal to the tasks of chief justice.
“If anyone has to step into that position, she’s the ideal one to do so,” said Keith Norman, the executive director of the Alabama State Bar.
Raised in Atmore, Stuart graduated from Auburn University in 1977 and the University of Alabama School of Law in 1980. She worked for the Alabama Attorney General’s Office after graduating. Charles Graddick, a Mobile judge who served as Alabama attorney general from 1979 to 1987, said Friday she did appellate work for his office, and that Stuart and his other hires “made me look better.”
“I found her to be extremely bright and capable and efficient, and was frankly very happy that I hired her when I interviewed her,” he said.
Stuart won election as a district judge in Baldwin County in 1988. Gov. Fob James appointed her as a circuit judge in the county in 1997. Three years later, she ran for the Alabama Supreme Court.
In a response to a Montgomery Advertiser candidate questionnaire in 2000 during that campaign, Stuart wrote that her “work with juveniles and families” were part of her qualifications for the job.
“If we can prevent a young person or family from getting in trouble in the first place, we might keep them out of the court system and out of trouble with the law for a lifetime,” Stuart wrote.
Stuart has amassed a conservative voting record on the court. In 2001, she concurred in a decision to not allow a teenager to get an abortion without a parent’s consent. In 2007, Stuart was one of four justices who dissented from a ruling allowing Alabama to give its driver’s license test in multiple languages and joined another decision that year which struck down $3.5 billion in punitive damages awarded to the state against ExxonMobil over a dispute about natural gas in Mobile Bay.
Stuart concurred in the 2015 API decision where the Alabama Supreme Court stopped the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples, despite U.S. District Judge Ginny Granade striking down the state’s bans on same-sex marriage earlier that year. But Stuart, with her colleagues, voted in March to dismiss all pending motions in the case in March following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges striking down state bans on same-sex marriage.
Unlike other justices – including Moore, who used the occasion to pen an angry critique of Obergefell running more than 100 pages — Stuart wrote a brief concurrence saying that the state Supreme Court dismissing motions and petitions was routine and that opinions only reflected the thoughts of the justice and any who might join that opinion.
“Attributing the reasoning or explanation in a special concurrence or a dissent to a Justice who did not issue or join the writing is erroneous and unjust,” Stuart wrote in an opinion joined by Justices Mike Bolin and James Main.
Stuart raised $1.2 million in her 2000 race for the Supreme Court, much of it coming from business groups. Progress PAC, affiliated with the Business Council of Alabama, gave her more than $200,000 that year. She raised $1.6 million for her re-election campaign in 2006, with business groups again making large contributions. She was unopposed for re-election in 2012.
Norman, who attended law school with Stuart, said she was “as fair as the day is long.”
“Because of her upbringing and where she comes from, she is fair and considerate of all opinions,” he said. “I think more importantly, she is a great colleague to members of the court.”
As the top administrator of the state courts, Stuart oversees day-to-day operations, and will also have to address the perpetual struggle to get the necessary funding to operate the system.
Operating with eight justices would likely not impact proceedings or the lower courts, Norman said, though it does raise the possibility of ties in certain cases.
“It’s a question of whether there might be or could be a case that would split four to four, and that would essentially be affirming the decision below,” he said.
At First United Methodist, Cooper said the church has rallied around Stuart and says she reflects their values and those of Bay Minette.
“She and I talk a lot about bridging gaps that exist, and building bridges where bridges need to be built in the community, whether it pertains to poverty or race,” he said. “She’s a bridge builder. She’s not slowed down. I wish I could keep up.”