Last month, Mobile County set aside nearly $400,000 to cover funding shortfalls in local courtrooms over the next year — a voluntary appropriation to a state function that will keep one of Alabama’s busiest judicial circuits from losing 35 percent of its staff … for now.
Despite the names, Mobile County’s District and Circuit Courts are state entities that employ state personnel who process criminal and civil actions for the state. Alabama’s 41 judicial circuits — including the 13th Circuit in Mobile — are overseen by the Administrative Office of Courts (AOC) and their funding is derived primarily from appropriations from the Alabama Legislature.
Like other state functions, the court system has seen its funding reduced over the last several years, which has impacted the number of cases courts are able to process and how quickly.
The county’s contribution will reimburse AOC for the cost of funding more than a dozen attendants, legal research assistants, and other support positions — staff members Presiding Judge John R. Lockett described as “absolutely necessary” for local courtrooms to operate.
While the contribution may have solved the state’s problem for another fiscal year, all three Mobile County Commissioners have been very clear they cannot, and will not, take on the state’s funding responsibilities again next year. That has left Lockett looking to Montgomery for a permanent solution ahead of the 2018 legislative session.
Lockett typed a letter to the members of Mobile County’s legislative delegation Oct. 2 laying out the “frightening consequences” of the pending budgetary shortfalls in Alabama’s judicial system.
For Lockett, some of the primary concerns are legal in nature, as inadequate staffing can, and often does, create situations where people are kept in jail longer than they should be because, “the staff can’t process paperwork in a timely manner.”
However, the negative effects are felt not only by those accused of a crime, but by everyday citizens such as children in dependency hearings, as custody documents needed to enroll children in school or provide for their healthcare are processed in the same overburdened system.
“If staffing continues to be cut, those orders will take longer to process and/or file and will not be distributed timely to the petitioners and the health, safety, education and well-being of these already disadvantaged children will be put at further risk,” Lockett’s letter reads. “Victims of domestic abuse — whether physical, mental or emotional — [currently] lack necessary and critical protection from further violence. The delayed processing and filing of protection orders could lead to victims possibly having serious injury inflicted upon them, or worse, some may possibly be killed by their abusers.”
Lockett said inadequate staffing and funding has even had a fiscal impact, as delays in case processing have affected the collection of court costs and fees that generated more than $468 million in 2016 for the state’s general fund and a number of other agencies.
The price of justice
Alabama’s reduction in court funding is not a new concern, nor one isolated to Mobile County.
In a March 2016 op-ed for al.com, Judge Liles Burke — the president of the Alabama Appellate Judges Association and a current nominee for the federal judiciary — warned of a “dire financial crisis” within Alabama’s court system. Then, in February 2017, Chief Justice Lyn Stuart expressed similar concerns during budget deliberations before the Legislature.
Stuart was attempting to secure a $10 million increase from the $96.7 million allocated for Alabama’s judicial system in 2016. While her request was entertained, it was not granted, as lawmakers only found an additional $300,000 for state courts in the general fund this year.
Like other aspects of state government, the judicial system started to see significant cuts in its allocations from the general fund following the 2008 recession. Then, between 2010 and 2013, funding for Alabama courts in the general fund dropped from $163 million to just $80 million.
Though it’s slightly rebounded since judicial funding has yet to return to its pre-recession levels.
For many circuits, the result of those cuts has been staff reductions and reduced hours. In 2013 former Chief Justice Roy Moore also ordered circuit clerks to close their offices to the public on Wednesdays so staff members could catch up on paperwork — something a handful of offices still do around the state, though Mobile County isn’t one of them.
In addition to its own funding constraints, though, the 13th Judicial Circuit in Mobile County operates with fewer judges than others with comparable caseloads. In fact, in 2015, AOC spokesman Scott Hoyem told Lagniappe that Mobile County had the biggest shortfall of judges in Alabama.
However, fewer judges does not mean fewer cases.
According to a report conducted by Alabama’s Unified Judicial System, 26,373 cases were filed in Mobile Circuit Court in 2016 and 40,292 were filed in Mobile District Court during the same time period. That comes out to 2,398 cases for each of the 11 circuit judges and 8,058 cases for each of the five district judges, making the 13th Circuit one of the state’s busiest dockets.
Not only is that ratio higher than courts in Jefferson, Montgomery and Madison counties, it’s also substantially higher than the state average of 1,370 filings per circuit judge and 5,831 filings per district judge.
While Lockett acknowledged local courts have been shown to need more judges, he believes the funding for support staff members is the more pressing issue, as only 38 of 58 full-time positions in the circuit clerk’s office are funded in the current fiscal budget.
“Our clerk has struggled mightily to fill the gaps with temporary, full- and part-time employees funded with her share of local court costs,” Lockett wrote. “Those funds are insufficient, and she has been forced to lay off employees and to reduce the hours of others.”
Lockett said attrition is also a concern for the employees the courts have retrained. While the Alabama Legislature approved a pair of merit raises for court employees in 2014 and 2016, those were were the first and only salary adjustments since 2008.
According to Lockett, that combination of stagnant wages and expanding workloads has many turning to the private sector in search of better pay and benefits.
“Morale is pretty low,” he said.
Down the road
Lockett said the feedback he’s received from the local delegation so far has been positive, but he’s also keenly aware that when the 2018 session starts the court’s concerns could be muted by larger issues such as prison reform and funding the state’s share of Medicaid.
Still, he expressed a cautious optimism to the other judges on the local bench when he conveyed a copy of his letter to them earlier this month, writing “Our relationship with the members of the delegation going forward is critically important.”
“Everything I hear is that next year is promising to be another terrible year for the general fund (see prison litigation funding), so the squeeze will be on all entities funded out of the general,” Lockett wrote. “What else is new?”
Lockett was likely referring to the outcome of a lawsuit that ended in June with a federal judge declaring the mental health care system in Alabama’s prisons to be “horrendously inadequate” and ordering an overhaul that could be as costly as it is logistically challenging.
Add in the fact that Alabama only managed to plug an $85 million gap in its Medicaid funding by tapping into the state’s economic settlement with BP, and it’s not difficult to see some of the things that might push court funding to the back burner when legislators return to Montgomery.
Lagniappe reached out to a handful of local legislators, including Sen. Bill Hightower and Rep. Chris Pringle, to ask about their response to Lockett’s letter, but responses were limited.
While Pringle claimed to have seen the letter, he said he had not yet read it. However, he said he was aware the court system would need additional funding this year to avoid layoffs.
“We’re going to have to address it,” Pringle added.
Hightower is in the midst of a campaign for governor and did not respond.
Commission President Merceria Ludgood said she and her colleagues made their decision to use $392,000 from the county’s general fund to support local court positions after a similar request from Lockett earlier this year — a change of pace for a commission that fought to avoid subsidizing state cuts in Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich’s office for years.
Ludgood said that despite local courts being a clear function of the state, the county did not want to see them “grind to an ever slower pace because of the state’s inaction.” However, she also said court costs are “not something the county can absorb,” adding “only in extraordinary circumstances would [the commission] consider absorbing them temporarily.”
Outside of the money it provided, Ludgood said the commission would likely push for adequate court funding in its own legislative priorities for the coming year. But regardless of what is or isn’t accomplished in Montgomery, all three commissioners put the state on notice last month that Mobile County’s generosity shouldn’t be counted on next year.
To do so, Ludgood said, would allow the state to continue “kicking the can down the road.”
“There’s some hard, cold realities about the state of Alabama’s coffers and revenues, and until they do the hard work of dealing with that, we’re going to continue to see this problem,” Ludgood added. “The BP money has allowed them to kick the can down the road, just like oil spill recovery money allowed them them to kick the can down the road during the recession, but sooner or later, the chickens come home to roost, and I think we’re almost there.”