For months, municipal judges have asked for more help and more pay. It appears one of those could be changing soon, thanks to a Mobile City Council ad-hoc committee.
At a meeting Feb. 18, committee members agreed to move forward on amending the city ordinance pertaining to municipal judges to allow councilors to appoint up to five part-time, “adjunct” judges to serve in place of full-time or part-time judges due to illness, absence or as an on-call duty judge to rule on search warrants for the Mobile Police Department.
Previously, fill-ins known as “assistant judges” were appointed by the mayor’s office, but the practice was stopped when a series of Lagniappe stories questioned its legality after retired Mobile County Circuit Court Judge Charles Graddick was found to be serving on a fill-in basis, despite not having been appointed by the council.
Presiding Municipal Judge Holmes Whiddon said the fill-ins are needed, especially when a judge is sick or otherwise unavailable to take the bench due to vacation or judicial conferences. The already stuffed dockets only become a bigger issue if they have to be moved to another day or delayed by a week, he said.
“[Full-time judges] cover 26 dockets per week,” Whiddon told committee members. “It puts us in a real, real bind if our judges cannot sit.”
Whiddon is requesting up to five judges to serve on a rotating list in case a judge can’t serve due to last-minute circumstances. Whiddon said these judges could be paid $400 per docket worked.
“If push comes to shove, we can pay for it out of our judicial administration fund,” Whiddon said. “At the end of this fiscal year, the compensation would be paid as a regular budget item.”
Committee Chairwoman Gina Gregory asked Whiddon if it would make more sense to hire more permanent judges, rather than five adjunct positions.
“If you’re so overloaded and you need this help, wouldn’t it be better to appoint another full-time judge to help take the load off?” Gregory asked. “If you have another regular [judge] in-house, it seems like it would be easier.”
Whiddon said the judges had explored that as well, but noted a full-time judge would be constrained by assigned dockets and they’d prefer the flexibility allowed through the adjunct or on-call process.
“The issue we’re dealing with is flexibility,” Judge Karlos Finley said. “The ordinance is very strict on what we can and can’t do.”
For instance, Finley said, part-time judges are only allowed to work three dockets per week, while full-time jurists work as many as 26.
Whiddon added the judges would probably come back before the council by the end of the year to ask for additional full-time, or part-time judges.
Councilman Joel Daves, who is also a committee member, asked Whiddon and Finley what was causing the increase in docket size if the city wasn’t increasing in population. Both said it was due to an increase in crime.
At this statement, Daves presented the judges with the numbers of cases filed per year through the city’s software system. Since 2015, he said, the number of new cases filed has decreased each year from 43,269 five years ago to 24,122 last year.
“Since 2015, the numbers show a steady decline,” he said. “So, I keep coming back to, why do we need more judges if the number of cases have declined?”
Both Whiddon and Finley disputed the numbers presented and blamed the city’s new software system from Tyler Technologies for errors in the reporting. Whiddon said he and other judges know anecdotally that the number of cases have increased. He added that new cases being filed does not necessarily cover the entire workload.
“We’re as busy as we can be,” Whiddon said. “We’re overworked, the prosecutors are overworked and the court is overworked. Just because there are 20,000 cases filed in a year, we’re doing a lot more work than that.”
Daves countered by suggesting that if the numbers were lower in 2019 due to the software, wouldn’t the software also be showing a lower number for 2015, as well?
Finley said Tyler software is better for operations, but fails at data collection. The judges presented the council with numbers from the court’s old system showing 62,083 cases filed by June 2009. Whiddon did not have current numbers using the old software.
Whiddon, Finley and the other judges had also come to council previously hoping for a raise. Whiddon had asked the committee to consider a $20,000 annual bump for full-time judges and a $15,000 increase for part-time judges.
However, before the committee can consider the raises, Gregory said it must work out some legal issues involving whether the judges, by state law, can receive raises during their terms. Whiddon said he believes judges are exempt from that rule, but councilors decided to do more research on it.
Whiddon also told councilors he would make himself ineligible for any raise paid for out of the judicial administration fund because he controls it. After speaking with an attorney with the Alabama Ethics Commission, he decided that was the best idea.
The council will try to seek a legal opinion on raises for the rest of the municipal judges.
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