Federal Judge in Alabama Denies Black Mayor’s Motion To Force White Town Leaders To Allow Him Into Office

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A federal judge denied a motion from a Black mayor in Newbern, Alabama, who asked the court to require the town’s white leaders to allow him into office now, but said his arguments will likely be successful in September’s trial.

Patrick Braxton argued in a November 2022 complaint that after he was lawfully elected as mayor of Newbern, the white outgoing mayor Haywood Stokes and his town council changed the locks to the town hall, removed or destroyed town documents and denied Braxton access to the town’s mailbox and bank account. 

In March 2024, around a year and a half after the case began, the plaintiffs filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to allow Braxton, the lawful mayor, to hold office while the case is being litigated. 

They also asked the court to order Stokes and his council members to hold and fully publicize new, lawful special elections for the town council seats by Nov. 5.

In the motion, which was denied today, the plaintiffs argued that the “defendants cannot go another year violating the constitutional rights of Newbern’s residents in overt violation of the bedrock tenets of our democratic system.”

In response, Stokes and his town council argued that the plaintiffs waited more than a year and four months to file the motion after their first complaint, so they can’t show they’ll “suffer imminent, irreparable harm” if the court doesn’t grant the preliminary injunction, which is often used to get immediate, temporary relief.

The federal court referenced this argument as one of the reasons why it was denying Braxton’s motion. To be granted a preliminary injunction, a party must prove that there would be imminent and irreparable harm if it was not granted.

U.S. District Court Judge Kristi Dubose, a George W. Bush appointee, said in her decision that Braxton and his council members have not demonstrated a sense of urgency or necessity. The trial for this case is set to begin on Sept. 9, — about a year before Newbern’s next municipal election — so she said that the plaintiffs can wait until then and referenced  a quote from a previous court decision: “Simply put, equity aids the vigilant, not those who sleep on their rights.”

Essentially, the quote expresses that people who act on injustice immediately are more likely to gain equality and create change than those who wait on action.

The judge also noted that during the preliminary injunction, the plaintiffs admitted that their claim needs to be a new election by November because that is when the town officials’ current terms end under Alabama law is actually incorrect.

However, she did find that the plaintiffs’ arguments would likely be successful in trial.

Newbern, a small majority-Black town, has not had a mayoral election in almost 60 years, and instead, the town has a hand-me-down system where the current mayor appoints the next mayor. 

Since no one else officially filed for office before the election deadline, Braxton became mayor-elect on July 22, 2020, which is the protocol under Alabama law, and he selected five Black residents to join his town council.

Braxton argued in his amended complaint that Stokes did not file for candidacy because he “knew or reasonably believed that he would not prevail in an election for the office of Mayor against Braxton.” 

Then, without notifying any of the town residents, Stokes and his council members decided to hold a special election on Oct. 6, 2020, resulting in the all-white group being elected. 

Braxton and the other plaintiffs argued that the defendants engaged in intentional racial discrimination by refusing to let Black residents participate in local elections or hold local office, violating the First and 14th Amendments. 

“The defendants’ practices probably severely burden the right to vote protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments, and given that Defendants submit no interest that is served by the status quo and that the alleged hand-me-down system defies state law, the challenged conduct is unlikely to survive strict scrutiny.”

However, the judge said that proving that they would likely succeed on the merits of their legal and constitutional claim is not enough for relief to be granted before the trial. There needs to be urgency for a preliminary injunction to succeed, according to the judge.

For now, Braxton and his council members will not be able to govern Newbern as Stokes and the other town leaders physically prevent them from taking office.

Read more about the case here.