A Valley Springs attorney and former Lodi City Council candidate has been busy in Montgomery, Ala., fighting for the right to have a monument showing The Ten Commandments displayed inside the Alabama Supreme Court building.
Brian Chavez-Ochoa, 47, flew to Alabama on Sunday to represent five Alabama residents in a federal lawsuit claiming an ethics panel didn't have the authority to remove Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore.
The nine-member Alabama Court of the Judiciary - an appointed panel of judges, lawyers and private citizens - voted unanimously to remove Moore from office in November because he refused U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson's order that he move a 5,300-pound Ten Commandments monument from the rotunda of the Alabama Judicial Building.
Chavez-Ochoa said he is fighting to have Moore reinstated because the former chief justice was an elected officials who was removed by a panel that was not elected.
Chavez-Ochoa filed two lawsuits concerning the Ten Commandments controversy, one in August and the other in November.
The first one came shortly after Alabama's Judicial Inquiry Commission suspended Moore as chief justice and Thompson ordered the monument removed on Aug. 22.
Chavez-Ochoa claims that forcing the removal of the monument violates the First Amendment and discriminates against the Judeo-Christian belief system in favor of a different religious belief - that there is no god.
"Atheism is recognized as a religious belief," Chavez-Ochoa contends.
The case will be heard in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeal in Atlanta, possibly in March, Chavez-Ochoa said.
The second lawsuit was filed in November after the Alabama Court of the Judiciary removed Moore as chief justice. In that suit, Chavez-Ochoa's five clients claim that they were disenfranchised because a non-elected panel removed a duly elected chief justice.
"All voters have right to have their vote counted and protected," he said.
Chavez-Ochoa spent several hours in a Montgomery courtroom Monday arguing against a recent motion by Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor to have the November case dismissed.
Alabama Deputy Attorney General Charles Campbell argued that the lawsuit should be dismissed partly because Moore's August case is still active in state courts.
Campbell also argued that the state Court of Judiciary has been disciplining judges in Alabama for 30 years and did not violate the rights of voters when it ousted Moore.
The presiding judge didn't rule on the dismissal motion, Chavez-Ochoa said, but is expected to make a ruling in the near future.
Chavez-Ochoa only became involved in the Alabama cases last August after he was contacted by some clients from Operation Rescue West, a pro-life organization, whom he represented in a 1998 abortion case, and the Christian Defense Coalition, a group of conservative Christian activists.
The day after Chavez-Ochoa flew to Alabama, monument supporters asked him to file suit to protect the monument, he said.
Chavez-Ochoa said he doesn't see himself as a big-time lawyer on the national scene despite his work on two cases that have received nationwide attention.
"I don't take any of the credit; the Lord brought me to this case," Chavez-Ochoa said. "I'm just a small-town attorney from Valley Springs. It's been just a marvelous experience and a blessing."
Born and raised in the San Fernando Valley, Chavez-Ochoa lived in Lodi from 1986 to 1997. In 1994, he ran for the Lodi City Council, losing out to incumbents Jack Sieglock and Phil Pennino along with challenger David Warner. Warner is now a San Joaquin County Superior Court Judge in Lodi.
Chavez-Ochoa didn't run again for the council, but decided to focus on law school. He got his law degree from Lincoln Law School in Sacramento in 1996 and passed the bar the following year.
Chavez-Ochoa made his second attempt at elective office in 2002, when he ran for Calaveras County district attorney. He was defeated by Jeff Tuttle, an appointed incumbent, 8,582 votes to 4,041.
Chavez-Ochoa said he dropped out of the race seven weeks early when his wife became ill.
Chavez-Ochoa and his wife of 30 years, Jennifer, have six children and six grandchildren.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.