Mobile County has agreed to make a $300,000 appropriation to help prevent catastrophic layoffs in local courts, but the temporary fix hasn’t stopped one judge from filing an unusual injunction he believes could force Alabama into a permanent solution.
The Mobile County Commission included the appropriation to local circuit and district courts in its $147.8 million budget for fiscal year 2019, which passed unanimously on Sept. 24.
Despite the name, the 13th Judicial Circuit of Mobile County is a state entity. Funding cutbacks on the state level already prompted some layoffs and service reductions earlier this year, and despite having no responsibility to do so, the county’s contribution should prevent more.
Mobile County made an even larger appropriation in 2017 and commissioners vowed not to do so again this year, fearing doing so would allow the Legislature to continue avoiding the consequences of inadequately funding its court system.
Commission President Connie Hudson said the county backtracked on its stance because the impact the court system faced in the coming year would have been dire, and because judges agreed to work with Mobile’s delegation of lawmakers on passing a local law to generate additional funding through new local court fees.
“We cannot absorb those responsibilities year after year,” she said. “It puts us in a very difficult position. Obviously, we want to be able to help the court system, but it is not our obligation and we cannot take over the state’s responsibility. There has to be a another revenue stream.”
Presiding Circuit Judge John Lockett was unavailable to discuss what court fees might be increased if such a judicial funding bill were introduced in the coming legislative session. County Attorney Jay Ross also said he didn’t know any details at this time.
However, figuring out what court fees to raise could prove challenging, as many in the legal community already complain that certain filing and processing fees are too high. Those fees, which the Legislature has increased incrementally over the years, generate millions for the state.
There are roughly 40 statewide filing fees but also fees at the local level, including five collected only in Mobile County. To put the state revenue stream in context, Mobile County courts alone collected and disbursed more than $7 million to noncourt functions in 2016.
While not speaking for other judges, Lockett himself said a few months ago that funding courts with fees was “an absolutely horrible way to do business.”
Commissioner Merceria Ludgood, who is herself a licensed attorney, also raised concerns about the practice during a recent county meeting. She said increasing some court fees can ultimately push access to the judicial system beyond what some citizens can realistically afford to pay.
If any state lawmakers share similar concerns, it could prove an obstacle in the Legislature for any funding bill local judges might be drafting. Seeing as how a single “no” vote can derail local legislation, it also wouldn’t take very much opposition to stop those efforts.
“One of the things legislators have said to us in the past is that there are certain communities that are disproportionately affected when you stick on fees on top of fines,” Ludgood said. “Rep. [James] Buskey previously said something like that would be dead on arrival, but he’s retiring.”
Ludgood instead suggested the Legislature find a way to redirect existing funds to the local court.
Just minutes after the county approved its appropriation to the local judicial system, Mobile County Circuit Judge Jim Patterson took an extraordinary step he believes could legally force the state to allow local courts to adequately fund themselves.
As Lagniappe has previously reported, Patterson is currently presiding over the criminal trial of Mandy Nicole Brady, who was scheduled to stand trial for meth trafficking in August but didn’t show up after she was inadvertently released from jail despite her bond having been revoked.
On Sept. 12, Mobile County Metro Jail Warden Trey Oliver and Mobile County Circuit Clerk JoJo Schwarzauer appeared in Patterson’s courtroom to explain how that happened. It was determined to have stemmed from an employee in the clerk’s office who failed to send an order to the jail in time notifying corrections officers that Brady’s bond had been revoked.
Brady hasn’t been seen since, and Schwarzauer testified to similar situations having occurred because her office is understaffed, and in some cases undertrained. As a result, Patterson entered an injunction in Brady’s case on Sept. 24 declaring Alabama laws that direct state functions to be funded with fees from local court users to be unconstitutional as applied.
The same injunction orders Schwarzauer, whose job as clerk includes disbursing monies collected from local court users to the state, to begin to “withhold 10 percent of the court fees and costs collected from litigants in Mobile County starting Oct. 1, 2018, and continuing month to month until such time as the State of Alabama has adequately and reasonably funded her office.”
“Taxing a segment of the state population who needs access to the court system and then using those tax revenues to support the state’s entire population is also unconstitutional,” Patterson wrote. “In fact, we fought a revolution against England in part because of this.”
Patterson had planned file a standalone lawsuit making some of the same arguments but was asked to hold off while judges worked on other remedies for the 13th Circuit’s funding issues. It’s unclear at this time what, if any, response the state might have to the order.
Judge James Patterson’s Sept. 24, 2018 Injunction
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