Alabama’s constitution prohibits the legislature from enacting a “local law”—one that applies only in one county or municipality—“in any case which is provided for by a general law” that applies throughout the state.[1] Under one such “general law,” running a red light is a criminal misdemeanor, though enforcement generally depends on a law enforcement officer being present.[2] The City of Montgomery has a “local law” under which running a red light, if not prosecuted as a misdemeanor, can qualify as a “civil violation” if recorded by a red-light camera.[3]

In its recent decision in Glass v. City of Montgomery,[4] the Alabama Supreme Court was asked whether Montgomery’s local red-light camera law was “provided for” by the general law. Three justices said it was; two of those three found that a judicially created exception for a “demonstrated local need” saved the law, while the other justice would have held that the law was unconstitutional. Two other justices said the subject of the local law was not “provided for” by the general law and was therefore constitutional. And two justices concurred in the result upholding the constitutionality of the local law without saying why.
 
In the end, the decision was 6-1 in favor of the City of Montgomery’s law, but the justices split on how best to interpret the text, the role of original public meaning, and how to apply presumptions of legislative validity when the constitution imposes on the judiciary the duty to say what the law is.

Background

In August 2017, a red-light camera recorded Richard Stephen Glass running a red light in Montgomery. The city issued him a civil citation and fine, which he refused to pay. He contended that the local law allowing Montgomery to use red-light cameras violated three provisions of the Alabama Constitution. The one most important to this case, Section 105, provides:

No special, private, or local law, except a law fixing the time of holding courts, shall be enacted in any case which is provided for by a general law, or when the relief sought can be given by any court of this State; and the courts, and not the Legislature, shall judge as to whether the matter of said law is provided for by a general law, and as to whether the relief sought can be given by any court; nor shall the Legislature indirectly enact any such special, private, or local law by the partial repeal of a general law.[5]

Section 105 does two things. First, it forbids the passage of local laws “in any case which is provided for by a general law.” Second, it instructs courts, not the legislature, to determine whether a “case” is “provided for by a general law.”

 

Glass argued that the local law allowing Montgomery to use red-light cameras to issue civil citations and fines violated Section 105 because a general law—the Alabama Rules of the Road Act[6]—“provided for” the enforcement and punishment of traffic-light violations. Under the general law, red-light violations are criminal misdemeanors and may be prosecuted if observed by a law enforcement officer or a sworn eyewitness.[7]

The local law—the Montgomery Red Light Safety Act—established a red-light camera system within the city limits of Montgomery and authorized automated photographic enforcement of traffic-light violations. The legislature found that the Act was necessary because (1) running red lights was “a dangerous problem in Montgomery,” and (2) studies indicated that red-light cameras were effective at detecting and reducing red-light violations.[8] The Act created a “non-criminal category of state law called a civil violation,” which was punishable by a civil fine only.[9] The Act specified that a driver cannot be subject to both a criminal misdemeanor and a civil fine for the same violation.[10]

The Court’s Opinion

The Alabama Supreme Court upheld the Act. Justice Sarah H. Stewart wrote the plurality opinion, joined in full by Justice William B. Sellers, in part by Justices Brady E. Mendheim, Jr., and Jay Mitchell, and in the result by Justices Michael F. Bolin and Tommy Bryan. Chief Justice Tom Parker dissented.[11]

The plurality opinion began by explaining that, under the court’s precedent, “if a local act covers matters of the same import dealt with in a general law,” or if the subject of the local act was “already subsumed by the contents of the general law,” the local act would violate Section 105.[12]

The opinion then acknowledged the tension between the original meaning of Section 105, the court’s later decisions, and the court’s judicial duty. As to the first, the court noted that—consistent with Justice Mitchell’s call in a previous case for litigants “to provide scholarship and arguments” concerning the original public meaning of Section 105[13]—the city had “offer[ed] valuable historical context pertaining to the framers’ original understanding of § 105” that the city claimed “turn[ed] more recent jurisprudence on its head.”[14] The city explained, though, that it was not actually asking the court to correct course, but was offering the “discussion of ratification history” to support “the Court’s long-running practice of defining the ‘case’ or ‘matter’ of a general law narrowly,” which was “consistent with Section 105’s original understanding.”[15]

The plurality responded to this evidence by emphasizing other jurisprudential considerations:

Although we acknowledge the significance of giving words in a constitutional or statutory provision the meaning they had at the time the provision was ratified, we are also mindful of the plain meaning of the text of § 105—in particular, the plain meaning of the portion of the text of § 105 that provides that “the courts, and not the legislature, shall judge as to whether the matter of said law is provided for by a general law.”[16]

According to the plurality, Section 105 “clearly and affirmatively directs the judicial branch to determine whether the ‘matter’ of a local act is provided for by a general law and compels us to give substantial weight to the judiciary’s interpretive power when clarifying the framework for § 105 analysis.”[17] And inherent in this judicial responsibility, the plurality continued, was the “duty to make every presumption in favor of the constitutionality of an act of the legislature,” and thus to interpret provisions of the competing sets of laws narrowly.[18]

Applying that standard, the plurality accepted the city’s contention that the local law “should be interpreted as narrowly pertaining to cases in which a motorist runs a red light, is captured on photographic-enforcement equipment, and does not receive a criminal citation.”[19] Nonetheless, the plurality found that both the local law and the general criminal law “indisputably address the consequences of running a red light,” and “both the general laws and the Act cover the designation and penalization of identical violations of Alabama’s motor-vehicle and traffic code.”[20] According to the plurality, the subject of the local act thus covered “matters of the same import” as the general law.

 Having determined that the matter covered by the Montgomery Red Light Safety Act was “provided for by” the general criminal law, the plurality asked whether the “demonstrated local need” exception to Section 105 applied and found that it did. Under that judicially created rule, the legislature may enact local laws coextensive with a general law so long as it determines that “local needs demand additional or supplemental laws substantially different from general law.”[21] The plurality noted that “the passage of the Act was . . . supported by legislative findings of special local needs” because the legislature found that “vehicles running red lights have been and are a dangerous problem in Montgomery.”[22] Accordingly, the plurality determined that “the Act passes constitutional muster under the ‘demonstrated local need’ exception to § 105.”[23]

Justice Mendheim’s Concurrence

Justice Mendheim wrote a separate concurrence to explain that he would have found Montgomery’s local red-light camera law constitutional because it did not address the same matter as a general law.[24] According to Justice Mendheim, a matter is “subsumed” in a general law “if the effect of the local law is to create a variance from the provisions of the general law.”[25] So, he reasoned, because the local act expressly provides that general laws take precedence—since a civil penalty may not be imposed if the driver is issued a criminal citation—“there is no conflict or overlap between the general laws concerning red-light violations and the local Act.”[26]

Justice Mendheim also parted from the plurality in its application of the “demonstrated local need exception,” which he described as “nontextual and unworkable.”[27] He argued that “the text of § 105 contains no hint of such an exception,”[28] and that the exception is merely “a judicial gloss . . . , one that has taken on a different meaning than when it was originally enunciated.”[29] In its first formulation, Justice Mendheim wrote, the “exception” was merely a restatement of the rule that a local law could be enacted if a general law did not speak to the issue—that is, if there was a local need for legislation not provided by the general law. But over time, he said, “the tenor of what a ‘demonstrated local need’ entailed began to change” from a restatement of the rule to an extratextual allowance that the legislature could enact any local laws it deemed necessary.[30] The plurality, Justice Mendheim concluded, followed that counter-textual trend rather than relying on the plain text of Section 105. 

Justice Mitchell’s Concurrence

Justice Mitchell also concurred separately. First, he endorsed all of the plurality opinion except for the rationale behind its Section 105 analysis. He would have found the local law constitutional because the “matter” of the act was not “provided for” by general law, not because the legislature had met an exception to the general rule.[31]

Second, Justice Mitchell commended the City of Montgomery for honoring his previous request[32] to provide evidence of original public meaning, and he encouraged future litigants to expand the scope of their search for such evidence. He noted that the city had provided evidence from “(1) the debates surrounding § 105 during the 1901 Constitutional Convention, and (2) judicial opinions issued shortly after § 105’s enactment.”[33] He warned that Convention debates shorn of context can be “vulnerable to ‘cherry-picking’” and may “often reveal more about the private intent of individual delegates than they do about the original public understanding of the text.”[34] He thus suggested that “litigants in future cases should not limit themselves to discussing Convention transcripts and judicial opinions,” but should “consider a broad range of sources, including, for example, contemporaneous dictionaries, scholarly texts and treatises, histories of the period, and newspaper articles or similar texts written for lay audiences.”[35]

Chief Justice Parker’s Dissent

Chief Justice Tom Parker dissented. He agreed with the plurality that the local law covered the same subject as a general law, but he criticized the plurality’s application of the “demonstrated local need” exception. He would have held that Montgomery’s local law violated Section 105.[36]

Chief Justice Parker first addressed the core Section 105 analysis. He began by expressing his doubts as to “whether this Court’s current § 105 jurisprudence bears any resemblance to the original meaning of this constitutional provision.”[37] And he reiterated Justice Mitchell’s call for parties to “thoroughly brief the question of the original meaning,” and extended the invitation to “scholarly publications throughout the State, whose authors may be less constrained by the necessities of client advocacy.”[38]

With his concern about  precedent stated, Chief Justice Parker noted that “no one has asked us to overrule all or part of that jurisprudence in this case,” and so he assumed that the “precedent is sound.”[39] He agreed with the plurality that “the subject of the general law and of the Act is the same: prohibition of running a red light, and the resulting consequences.”[40] And though he acknowledged that the “subject” should be construed narrowly, he rejected the plurality’s claim that the court was required to make all presumptions in favor of upholding the law. He reasoned that “the deference we ordinarily owe the Legislature is forbidden to us by the constitution’s express command” that courts be the arbiter of the meaning of Section 105.[41]

Chief Justice Parker also responded to Justice Mendheim’s suggestion that the court should use a “variance” standard for determining whether a local law addressed the same subject as a general law. Like other tests the court had used in the past, Chief Justice Parker wrote, the “variance” test “​​merely distracted from the key inquiry”: “whether the local law addresses the same subject as the general law, regardless of whether it creates a different effect.”[42]

Like Justice Mendheim, though, Chief Justice Parker disagreed with the plurality’s application of the “demonstrated local need exception.” Unlike Mendheim, he did not suggest that the exception itself was illegitimate, and he expressed no interest in scrapping it altogether. But he agreed with Justice Mendheim that the test—even if legitimate—had not been fairly applied in this case. He argued that the defender of the law—here, the City of Montgomery—should bear the initial burden of showing a local need, and that the city failed to do that because it had not shown that the legislature found that red-light violations were “more prevalent in Montgomery than elsewhere in the State.”[43] For this reason, Chief Justice Parker would have declared the local law unconstitutional under Section 105.

 


[1] Ala. Const. art. IV, § 105.
[2] Ala. Code §§ 32-5A-32(3), -8.
[3] See Montgomery Red Light Safety Act, Act No. 2009-740, available at https://arc-sos.state.al.us/ucp/B09146AA.AOB.pdf.
[4] See Glass v. City of Montgomery, No. 1200240, 2022 WL 414392 (Ala. Feb. 11, 2022)
[5] Ala. Const. art. IV, § 105. The other two provisions, Section 89 and Section 104, prohibit city laws that are inconsistent with the state’s general laws and local laws that fix the punishment for a crime, respectively.
[6] Ala. Code § 32-5A-1 et seq.
[7] Id.
[8] Act No. 2009-740, § 2.
[9] Act No. 2009-740, § 3.
[10]
[11] Justice Greg Shaw recused. The opinion does not state how Justice Alisa Kelli Wise voted or if she participated.
[12] Glass, 2022 WL 414392, at *4 (cleaned up and citations omitted).
[13] See Barnett v. Jones, 338 So. 3d 757, 766 (Ala. 2021) (Mitchell, J., concurring); see also Barrett Bowdre, State Court Docket Watch: Barnett v. Jones, Nov. 1, 2021, https://fedsoc.org/commentary/publications/state-court-docket-watch-barnett-v-jones.
[14] Glass, 2022 WL 414392, at *4 (cleaned up).
[15] Id. (cleaned up).
[16] Id. at *5.
[17] Id.
[18] Id. (cleaned up and citations omitted).
[19] Id.
[20] Id. at *5-6.
[21] Id. at *6.
[22] Id. at *7.
[23] Id. The plurality also determined that the other two constitutional challenges—under Sections 89 and 104—had no merit. It emphasized that when Section 89 prohibited “inconsistent” laws, it meant “contradiction—qualities which cannot coexist—not merely a lack of uniformity in details.” And it found that the Section 104 challenge failed because the local law did not change the punishment for criminal red-light violations, but rather created a separate civil violation which could not be enforced if the violation was prosecuted as a crime. Id. at *8-11.
[24] Id. (Mendheim, J., concurring in part and concurring in the result).
[25] Id. at *14 (cleaned up and citations omitted).
[26] Id. at *14-15.
[27] Id. at *15.
[28] Id. at *13.
[29] Id.
[30] Id.
[31] Id. at *15-16 (Mitchell, J., concurring in part and concurring in the result).
[32] See Barnett, 338 So. 3d at766 (Mitchell, J., concurring specially); see also Bowdre, supra note 13.
[33] Glass, 2022 WL 414392, at *15 n.3 (Mitchell, J., concurring in part and concurring in the result) (citation omitted).
[34] Id. 
[35] Id.
[36] Id. at *16 (Parker, C.J., dissenting).
[37] Id.
[38] Id. at *16 n.4.
[39] Id., at *16.
[40] Id.
[41] Id. at *17.
[42] Id. at *18 (emphasis in original).
[43] Id., at *20 (emphasis in original).

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