Justices on Alabama’s Supreme Court have come down hard on a local judge over what they say was an “inappropriate” and “overreaching” attempt to force the state into providing additional funding for courts in Mobile County.
Last fall, Circuit Judge Jim Patterson took an extraordinary step in the middle of an ongoing funding crisis within the 13th Judicial Circuit of Mobile County when he declared a suite of laws that fund state functions with monies generated by local court fees to be unconstitutional.
According to data collected in 2016, Mobile County Circuit Clerk JoJo Schwarzauer’s office disbursed more than $7 million to non-court functions from court fines and fees collected locally, including $4.5 million that went directly into Alabama’s general fund.
At the same time, Mobile County’s Presiding Judge John Lockett was pleading with local legislatures to find a funding solution for local courts in Montgomery to no avail.
While unsuccessful, Patterson’s argument was based on the state constitution’s requirement that legislators make “adequate and reasonable appropriations” to all of Alabama’s unified judicial system — an obligation judges across the state say it’s failed to meet for years now.
What made Patterson’s order unusual was that it was entered in the middle of an unrelated criminal trial after a woman accused of drug trafficking was inadvertently released from jail because an order keeping her behind bars wasn’t sent to corrections officers in a timely manner.
After the incident, Patterson ordered officials from Mobile Metro Jail and Schwarzauer to “show cause” for why his order wasn’t followed, and in her response, Schwarzauer testified that a lack of staffing due layoffs in local courts was leading to delays and similar mistakes in her office.
It’s worth noting the woman at the center of this case wasn’t the only local inmate that was mistakenly released in 2018. While there aren’t any concrete numbers, at least one other case made headlines last year when capital murder suspect Harold Wallace was released despite having his bond revoked.
In response to those types of issues, Patterson ordered Schwarzauer, whose duties include disbursing monies collected from local courts to the state, to begin withholding “10 percent of court fees and costs collected from litigants in Mobile County” until the state was adequately funding her office.
Because the supreme court quickly issued a stay in the case, none of that funding was ever withheld from the state. As a result, last weeks’ ruling shouldn’t have any tangible effect on the current funding levels Mobile County courts are operating under.
Patterson’s injunction was unusual, but not unplanned. In fact, he had been workshopping virtually the same argument in a draft civil lawsuit for months, though there wasn’t much, if any, support among the other judges of 13th Circuit for filing a stand-alone lawsuit against the state.
Instead, he made his case in a surprise ruling in a criminal proceeding that had not broached the subject of adequate court funding. The move quickly prompted Alabama’s Attorney General’s office to respond, and last week, it drew heavy condemnation from the state’s highest court.
All of the Justices who considered the case found Patterson “went far beyond [his] authority” and “violated the separation-of-powers doctrine” by undermining the legislature’s role in funding Alabama’s court system.
In a concurring opinion from the majority, Justice Michael F. Bolin especially took Patterson to task — accusing him of creating “an adversarial civil proceeding, without paying a filing fee, essentially as an unnamed plaintiff, while simultaneously acting as the judge in the case.”
“Many, if not all, state agencies and departments wish they could receive more funding from the legislature, each having the proper motive of better serving the state’s citizenry,” Boline concluded. “Nevertheless, the circuit court judge’s actions in seeking to address additional funding for the circuit in which he sits, in a judicially inappropriate manner, were an insult to the numerous circuit judges who follow the law, as well as to the citizens of the state of Alabama who expect, and deserve, more from its judiciary.”
The justices, including Bolin, acknowledged that circuit judges have the authority to deem state laws unconstitutional.
However, they made it clear Patterson overstepped that authority by reaching a conclusion to a question no one asked in the middle of an unrelated criminal trial.
In his own concurring opinion, Chief Justice Tom Parker agreed Patterson’s actions were an overreach and at odds with the role judges can play in securing additional funding, but clarified that justices were not in any way addressing whether state courts are adequately funded.
In fact, Parker told Lagniappe last fall state courts have “never” been adequately funded and improving that would be one of his “foremost” priorities. In his opinion last week, Parker also clarified state courts do have a responsibility to push for adequate funding in certain situations.
At certain points, he goes on to quote some of the same case law Patterson used to defend his decision to step in and prevent dollars generated by underfunded courts around the state from being redirected to fund a slew of non-court functions.
Specifically, Parker quoted a 1974 opinion from the late Chief Justice Howell Heflin that states: “if the judicial system is to be a truly co-equal and independent branch answerable only to the sovereign — the people — then it must have the power to maintain itself.”
“Certainly in the usual situation it is not necessary for courts to exercise any extraordinary power since the other great branches of government are also charged with the constitutional duty to provide for an effective judiciary,” Heflin wrote. “It is only when the other branches are remiss in their constitutional duties that the court must act to preserve the efficient administration of justice.”
As Lagniappe reported last week, city and county officials recently pledged a combined $3 to help support local courts over the next three years despite having no obligation to help the state continue to operate its financially strained court systems in Mobile County.
While that may temporarily alleviate local funding concerns, it sets the state up for a broader discussion of how courts are funded in Montgomery over the next few years. The Administrative Office of Courts (AOC) has already said it’s working on a long-term solution with Parker as well as other judges and legislators across the state.
Recently Lockett and local legislators said they are also working AOC in hopes of reaching a long term solution. Lagniappe contacted AOC to see what its plan to secure additional funding for Alabama’s court system in the future might look like and has yet to receive a response.
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