The city of Mobile and Mobile County have each agreed to put $500,000 a year into the local court system — a move lobbyists described as the “least worst solution” to a court-funding crisis Alabama’s legislature has been unable or unwilling to address on a long-term basis.
Since at least 2016, judges in Mobile County’s 13th Judicial Circuit have warned of the impacts critical underfunding at the state level could have on local courtrooms. Last year, Presiding Judge John Lockett moved to reduce the number of jury trials and scale back office hours.
Despite having one of the largest caseloads in the state, courts in Mobile County are continuing to work with a third of the staff the circuit clerk and circuit judges had only a few years ago. In District Court, judges are working with half of the staff necessary to manage their caseloads.
This year’s state budget does include a $3 million increase for the Administrative Office of Courts (AOC), but none of those funds are earmarked to help circuits with large populations and increasingly large caseloads. A similar statewide increase last year failed to reach Mobile.
Court funding isn’t an isolated problem, but Alabama’s legislature has yet to tackle it broadly. In response, some local governments — including Mobile County — have begun to prop up the state courts in their area, even though they aren’t required to do so.
In fact, local courts have only avoided further layoffs because of $400,000 and $300,000 contributions the Mobile County Commission made in 2017 and 2018, respectively. The idea was the supposedly “one-time” appropriations would buy time for a legislative solution, but now the county and city are looking to spend a combined $3 million in hopes of buying more.
On May 28, the Commission and the Mobile City Council passed respective resolutions pledging to put an additional $500,000 into the 13th Judicial Circuit from 2019 to 2022. However, it was clear in their respective meetings that the city and county had little choice in the matter.
The resolutions specifically stated these contributions would be contingent on the Mobile County legislative delegation killing a local bill to force cities and counties to divert 20 percent of the proceeds they receive from the Simplified Sellers Use Tax (SSUT) to local courts.
“This is the revenue the county and cities are receiving based on internet sales, and while that revenue is increasing every year, it was really put in place to make up for the loss in revenue the county and cities don’t receive because of the closure of brick-and-mortar stores and the loss of business license fees,” Commission President Connie Hudson said. “The funding for the court system has been cut by the state. It’s not a local funding responsibility.”
The bill in question, HB 598, was introduced by Rep. Barbara Drummond, D-Mobile, and was passed by the House with bipartisan support May 16. Drummond said she focused on the SSUT because revenue from online sales has increased “more than 100 percent” in recent years.
“This has never been about pitting the courts against the cities and county. This was designed to address the crisis in our courts right now,” Drummond said. “We’re not taking any of the money they have now, we were simply looking at a small percentage of the growth.”
Drummond said she wasn’t yet familiar with all of the details in the resolutions passed by the city and county this week. Though, she said it seems to provide additional funding on par with what is projected to be generated from HB 598, which would sunset after five years.
If the resolutions satisfy local judges’ concerns, though, Drummond said she’s content.
However, her bill was actually the second attempt legislators made to address local court funding this year. As Lagniappe has reported, Rep. Matt Simpson, R-Daphne, introduced House Bill 83 earlier in the session, which aimed to generate funding by increasing certain filing fees.
According to attorney Beth Lyons, who lobbies on behalf of Mobile County and the city of Mobile, that bill was essentially dead on arrival in Montgomery.
“There is a perception that filing fees disproportionately impact low-income individuals, but judges liberally use the remittance of court costs,” Lyons said. “However, that perception still exists, and it was the reason they came up with this alternative plan.”
Drummond disagreed with Lyons’s assessment of the impact filing fees have on low-income earners, but she said her opposition to Simpson’s proposed bill was also based on the ineffectiveness of plans that fund court systems with fees those courts are expected to collect.
“It’s not sustainable,” Drummond told Lagniappe. “Courts usually only collect about 30 percent of those fees, and it’s regressive. That wouldn’t even stop the bleeding, and courts wouldn’t know from one year to the next what they’d be receiving.”
While no one from the local delegation was named, there was no love lost on the legislature among the members of the County Commission Tuesday. Hudson noted the state has repeatedly failed its constitutional requirement to adequately fund its court system.
Commissioner Merceria Ludgood said she could not understand why the state legislature has not made this issue more of a priority. Commission Jerry Carl, who is vacating his seat to run for Congress in 2020, flatly said the county was tired of doing the state of Alabama’s job.
“My patience with the state is gone. They have got to step up, be responsible and start doing their job,” he said. “When our court system isn’t moving in a timely manner, not only does it hurt the innocent, it also releases the guilty. One is as bad as the other.”
Drummond said she’s aware some city and council officials won’t be happy with her bill, but she also said an inadequately funded court system affects residents in every part of the county.
“The court system is vitally important to public safety. Our jail has over 1,600 people in it and it’s only equipped for a little more than 800,” Drummond said. “It is a state obligation, but we need to put a Band-Aid on it so we can work with the AOC on a strategic plan for all of the court system, including the 13th Judicial Circuit in Mobile County.”
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