Alabama Judge Wears Ten Commandments on Robe

Alabama Judge Wears Ten Commandments on Robe (AP)

A judge refused to delay a trial Tuesday when an attorney objected to his wearing a judicial robe with the Ten Commandments embroidered on the front in gold. Circuit Judge Ashley McKathan showed up Monday at his Covington County courtroom in southern Alabama wearing the robe. Attorneys who try cases at the courthouse said they had not seen him wearing it before. The commandments were described as being big enough to read by anyone near the judge.

Attorney Riley Powell, defending a client charged with DUI, filed a motion objecting to the robe and asking that the case be continued. He said McKathan denied both motions. “I feel this creates a distraction that affects my client,” Powell said.

McKathan told The Associated Press that he believes the Ten Commandments represent the truth “and you can’t divorce the law from the truth. … The Ten Commandments can help a judge know the difference between right and wrong.” He said he doesn’t believe the commandments on his robe would have an adverse effect on jurors. “I had a choice of several sizes of letters. I purposely chose a size that would not be in anybody’s face,” he said.

The case raised comparisons to former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who was removed from office in 2003 for refusing to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the rotunda of the Alabama Judicial Building in Montgomery. Moore said Tuesday he supports McKathan’s decision to wear the Ten Commandments robe. “I applaud Judge McKathan. It is time for our judiciary to recognize the moral basis of our law,” Moore said.

Powell said if he loses his case, he expects the judge’s wearing of the Ten Commandments robe to be part of an appeal.

Even if McKathan is doing this out of genuine conviction rather than political grandstanding, his actions are repugnant. While I disagree with the whole line of cases extending the 1st Amendment’s Establishment Clause to the several states, they have nonetheless been settled law for decades. Respect for the rule of law is even more important a component of judicial temperamant than “the truth” and knowing “difference between right and wrong.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Brian says:

    Agreed. Nothing like doing the wrong thing for the right reasons (and I’m generously giving him the BOD on his reasons). Respect for the law of the land, provided it doesn’t conflict with God’s law, is also a part of the Christian faith.

    The thing is, when a higher court intercedes, and I’m pretty sure one will, Christians everywhere will take it as a great affront and rise up in protest. As if, along with the 10 Commandments, God conferred the right act like a total imbecile so long as you attach the Lord’s name to it.

  2. Jim says:

    Don’t agree at all – Jim Crow was also “settled law” for decades. And it was wrong. Law isn’t written in stone – but at least in theory, the Ten Commandments were. In any case, they WERE part of the founding rationale for our court system. Denial of their validity (indeed, even their existence) by disallowing their display in the courts which are supposedly based on their principles is a denial of our own history – and an exercise in destructive childishness.

    Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. You can’t learn from a history of which you’re ignorant.

  3. denise says:

    I agree this is ridiculous.

    I object to any judge embellishing his/her robe. From Judge Judy’s lace collar to CJ Rehnquist’s gold stripes, personalization is a distraction and sends the wrong message. One of the important messages of the robe is that it is “the court” that sits behind the bench, not an individual. It stands for the idea that in theory anyway, a person should expect the same treatment regardless of who is wearing the robe.

  4. Kappiy says:

    Maybe judges should go back to wearing the colonial-style white wigs–although, in Alabama, that would probably get you thrown in jail!

  5. David Harris says:

    I agree that this is all quite absurd, but what about the attorney objecting to the robe in a DUI case? “Thou shalt not drink and drive” is not a commandment, so I don’t see how lettering on the judge’s robe could possibly affect his client.

  6. denise says:

    David Harris, the stated reason for the objection is that it’s a distraction. It also mixes up religious law with state law, and some jurors may have a religious conviction against drinking at all. I can see how it could confuse a juror to be told on the one hand to follow the jury instructions, but on the other hand have the judge’s robe state a different (and unrelated, as you say) set of laws. If drinking is against a juror’s religious law, why not bring that in too?

    The real reason is probably just to delay, and hopefully to get a different judge on the case — one who either doesn’t share this judge’s fundamentalist values, or if he does, doesn’t literally wear them on his garment (not literally on his sleeve, but close).

  7. Bithead says:

    Slavery was settled law for decades, as well.

  8. Roger says:

    Amen Denise, no pun intended. This guy needs to either lose the robe, provided he’s wearing something underneath, or step down from the bench.

    As a judge he is supposed to act as a neutral representative of the law. By wearing this robe, he is giving evidence of taking sides.

  9. David Harris says:

    Denise, I guess I thought my earlier comment implied that there was another reason that a DUI attorney was filing an objection over this matter. As to your comments on the jury being confused, I say again: I don’t think anything in the Ten Commandments conflicts with any DUI laws I have ever seen. And I hope you are not saying that without “robe assistance” a juror would abandon his or her religious convictions simply by sitting in the box. That is why there is a jury selection process, to attempt to remove as much prejudice as possible from the jury before the trial begins.

    All that being said, I think the judge is a moron. I would like to get my hands on one of those robes, though.

  10. anjin-san says:

    I certainly think that any defendent before the court who is not a Christian would have decent grounds for appeal. For that reason alone the judge’s fitness is in question.