Judicial funding fight likely to continue in upcoming legislative session
According to a recent report, eight additional district court judges and five district judges are needed in various parts of Alabama, including Madison and Baldwin counties.
The same report also states that Jefferson County has more judges than the caseload there requires.
But the redistribution of judicial offices has become a politically complicated issue in recent years. Fiscal conservatives in the State House have balked at spending millions on additional seats when Jefferson County and other counties are in surplus. The muscular Jefferson County delegation has protected their judge seats.
But now more lawmakers, including the new chair of the House General Fund’s budget committee, appear willing to shell out money for at least a few new seats.
“I’m definitely open to that conversation,” Rep. Rex Reynolds, R-Huntsville, told the Alabama Daily News this week. Reynolds is the former chief of police in Huntsville.
“We have a backlog of cases[in Madison County],” he said. “The last time I was informed it was over 12 months. This is not right for public safety.
“Having an extra courtroom would make a big difference in the process.”
In 2017, the Legislature, chaired by the Chief Justice of Alabama, established a Judicial Resource Allocation Commission to identify areas of the state that needed judges and had more than needed for the number of cases. It reports its findings to the legislature every year.
According to a letter from Chief Justice Tom Parker earlier this month, the eight district judges, in order of priority, will be needed in:
- The 19th Circuit, Autauga, Elmore and Chilton Counties: 2nd
- The 28th Circuit, Baldwin County: 2nd
- The 11th Circuit, Lauderdale County: 1st
- The 23rd Circuit, Madison County: 1
- The 6th Circle, Tuscaloosa County: 1st
- The 37th Precinct, Lee County: 1
The five district judges are needed in Baldwin, Mobile, DeKalb, Shelby and Madison counties, according to Parker’s letter.
According to the commission’s formula, the 19th Circuit, which includes Autauga, Elmore and Chilton counties, has a 2.3 justices deficit, the highest need in the state. Jefferson County now has 26, an excess of 12.2 circuit judges.
For district judges, the Jefferson-Birmingham district has the highest surplus at 2.49. Meanwhile, Baldwin County needs nearly four judges but has two.
The 2017 law also states that if a sitting judge retires or dies, the commission “has 30 days to decide whether such judgeship should be reassigned to another district or county.”
So far this has only happened once. Last year, despite objections from the Jefferson County legislature, a circuit judgeship was moved from Jefferson County to Madison County. Meanwhile, only one judgeship may be reassigned from a judicial district in a two-year period. Although three other Jefferson County district judges recently retired, those seats cannot be reassigned now.
“We’re lucky to have gotten a (Circuit Judge Spot), but now there’s nothing else that can be done for another 1.5 years,” said Sen. Sam Givhan, R-Huntsville. “And being a judge every two years is just not enough.”
Givhan last year proposed two court redistribution bills that have not made much headway.
He is now discussing with colleagues a proposal to fund two circuit judgeships in Madison County and Autauga, Elmore and Chilton County, and a county judgeship in Baldwin County.
He said his legislation will not affect Jefferson County. He also said he knew it was a Band-Aid approach.
“We need to take a long-term approach,” Givhan said.
Senator Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville, said he plans to lobby for more judges for his Senate district. According to the commission’s latest report, the circuit needs at least five judges. It has three.
“I’ll do everything in my power to get fourth in this session and then get fifth in the coming sessions,” said Chambliss.
Some of his colleagues are not convinced. Earlier, Sen. Arthur Orr, who sponsored the 2017 Redistribution Commission legislation, and Sen. Greg Albritton, the chair of the Senate General Fund, said they do not want to spend extra money if state-funded seats are underutilized.
Albritton told the Alabama Daily News this week his position hasn’t changed. But the state’s decades-old judicial structure could use a “holistic” overhaul.
Meanwhile, filling Jefferson County seats would now require overcoming his delegations.
“We don’t have the political will to defeat a filibuster,” he said. “And if you want that fight, why not do something that’s really worth it.”
Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, has said he doesn’t think the formula for measuring caseload and judicial need is correct, and he doesn’t think Jefferson County has more judges than it needs. He will continue to resist efforts to take over judicial posts from his home district. He said instead that lawmakers should find the money to fund the seats needed. According to Parker’s letter, eight Circuit and five District spots would total $5.35 million.
Smitherman pointed out this week that the state’s General Fund budget is expected to show a surplus of about $351 million next year.
“The argument against new judges has always been that we can’t find the money,” Smitherman said. “I found the money.”
He also said the new seats shouldn’t be “piecemeal”.
“If we try to solve the problem, we solve the whole problem,” Smitherman said.
The total of 13 new posts is fewer than the 12 district judgeships and 8 district judgeships that the commission deemed necessary in its 2022 report. Parker attributed this to a drop in the number of cases. He said it’s been a national trend since 2019.
“Since fiscal 2019, national crime numbers are down 9%,” Parker wrote. “Civil court cases are down 33%. District civil and small claims cases are down 22%. While the actions of Alabama government officials have reduced the impact of COVID precautions on the Alabama judiciary compared to other states, we are still experiencing some delayed effects of the pandemic.”