By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
For all but one year since its debut in 1977, Escambia County’s Law Day observance has provided high school seniors with an inside look at the workings of the judicial system. The program has remained — for the most part — free of controversy. Until now.
Invited as keynote speaker for the Friday, May 6, session — for 12th-grade students at Flomaton, T.R. Miller and W.S. Neal high schools, as well as the Cornerstone home school group — was former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman.
But Law Day founder and organizer Charles Godwin was forced to rescind the former governor’s invitation after Superintendent of Education Michele McClung and numerous others objected that selection of a convicted criminal as the guest speaker at Law Day was neither prudent nor appropriate.
Siegelman was convicted in 2005 in connection with the bribery investigation of HealthSouth founder Richard Scrushy, who made a half-million-dollar contribution to Siegelman’s state health board campaign in exchange for the governor’s promise to fight for a state lottery. The state’s former chief executive, who still maintains his innocence, served six years in prison.
In an exchange of emails from Godwin to everyone associated with the event, including local media, the school superintendent asked: “How many times have you presented a convicted felon to students?” Godwin replied that he had never allowed a convicted criminal to speak at the local observance, which is the state and national benchmark for such programs.
McClung wasn’t alone in her opinion. Online news service 1819 News reported that the school system superintendent was “bombarded with calls, emails and office visits from concerned parents who agreed with her and were uncomfortable with Siegelman addressing their children.”
Some of the parents reportedly told McClung their child or children would walk out if Siegelman took to the speaker’s podium.
Godwin, who agreed it would be “disruptive” for students to walk out, had no option but to “uninvite” the former governor.
“We don’t censor the presentation, we give parameters,” he told 1819 News. “Speakers must talk about their careers.” Godwin said he felt Siegelman’ experience made him “the best speaker who went through that process.”
Godwin’s opinion changed when he also started to get phone calls in opposition to Siegelman’s appearance, including one from a person who served on the jury during Siegelman’s trial.
“I came to the conclusion that this wasn’t the message for high school seniors,” said Godwin, who told 1819 News he sent a letter to the former governor, rescinding the invitation.
“There was a huge backlash from school superintendents, judges, newspaper journalists, school administrators, school board members and parents of high school seniors,” Godwin said in the letter. “The common complaint is the position that our judicial system is corrupt. This contradicts the message that we have been getting across for 47 years.”
Mike Edwards, who represents District 3 on the Escambia County Board of Education, was one of those who shared his concerns.
“Siegelman is not a good example for our students,” said Edwards, who pointed out that the scheduled speaker’s book, Stealing our Democracy, How the Political Assassination of a Governor Threatens our Nation, was proof the former governor “does not take responsibility for his actions.”
The state’s 51st governor, who served from 1999 until 2003, is the only person in Alabama’s history elected to all four of the state’s top governmental offices — Secretary of State, Attorney General, Lieutenant Governor and Governor.
He told the online news service he was “surprised and somewhat disappointed” that he was “uninvited” to speak at the event. He said he had planned to discuss the need for reform in the justice system during his scheduled 20-minute address.
“I was going to tell them [students] to get in the arena, find your passion and to give of themselves to make life better,” he said. “Imagine you’re on the ship of state. You can be a stowaway or be a captain and serve as a moral compass.”
Siegelman has been replaced as May 6’s featured speaker by former Baldwin County Circuit Judge James H. Reid. Reid, who served the 28th Judicial Circuit from 1989 until 2013, was one of the retired judges who sat in place of recused justices when the Alabama Supreme Court considered former Chief Justice Roy Moore’s appeal of his permanent suspension.
Pensacola, Fla. personal injury lawyer Aaron Watson will be the featured speaker for the Thursday, May 5, session that will have an audience of seniors from Escambia Academy, Escambia County High School and Atmore Christian School.