By Letitia Stein
(Reuters) - The chief justice of Alabama's Supreme Court was effectively ousted on Friday by a judicial panel that found he unethically resisted U.S. court rulings that legalized same-sex marriage.
Chief Justice Roy Moore, 69, violated judicial ethics with an order seen as directing probate judges to withhold marriage licenses from same-sex couples, defying federal court decisions, the Alabama Court of the Judiciary ruled.
It was the second suspension for the outspokenly conservative Moore. Earlier, he was sanctioned for refusing to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments in a state building.
Moore on Friday blasted the decision that followed a trial earlier this week.
"This was a politically motivated effort by radical homosexual and transgender groups to remove me as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court because of outspoken opposition to their immoral agenda," he said in a statement on social media.
His lawyer, Mat Staver, said he plans to appeal the unanimous decision to suspend Moore without pay for the rest of his term, effective immediately. Staver said it essentially removes Moore from the bench, as the chief justice will be too old to seek re-election at his term's end in January 2019.
Civil rights proponents hailed the move. "The people of Alabama who cherish the rule of law are not going to miss the Ayatollah of Alabama," Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said in a statement.
The Alabama Court of the Judiciary said in the ruling that Moore's Jan. 6 order showed "disregard for binding federal law" after the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark June 2015 decision giving gay and lesbian couples the right to marry.
The judiciary court rejected the chief justice's argument that he was providing a status update. Moore has insisted there was uncertainty after conflicting opinions on gay marriage from state and federal courts.
"I think this ruling is an abuse of power," Moore's lawyer, Staver, said by phone. "It’s a de facto removal."
The ruling noted the state judiciary court had removed Moore from the bench in 2003 for defying a federal order to take down a Ten Commandments monument he installed in the state's judicial building. Voters re-elected him as chief justice in 2012.
He was charged after the Southern Poverty Law Center filed ethics complaints.
"It undermined the integrity of the judiciary, the spectacle of a chief justice telling other judges not to follow a court order," the SPLC's Cohen said by phone.
(Reporting by Letitia Stein in Tampa, Fla.; Editing by David Gregorio and Matthew Lewis)