A court order written by Mobile County Circuit Judge James Patterson was circulated by lawyers around the country this month, which brought Alabama’s struggle to adequately fund its judicial system to the attention of the American Bar Association (ABA).

In a June 15 order, Patterson granted a request for a continuance, but also warned the petitioner that funding cuts affecting local courts could delay their case for months.

An order written by Mobile County Circuit Judge James Patterson in June. (Twitter)

“We literally had to beg for money to keep the circuit afloat recently to pay clerks in the circuit clerk’s office, and to pay our law clerks working for the various judges. The circuit clerk’s office is way undermanned, and the circuit judges will all lose their judicial law clerks on Sept. 20, 2018, if funding is not restored,” Patterson wrote. “I hate that you lost your jury setting. You probably won’t get another this year, as we are booked through November, and there is no civil jury docket in December.”

It was quite the frank statement for an official court filing, which is likely why it made waves after a redacted copy of the document was posted on Twitter by a legal blogger. Eventually, Patterson’s order made its way into the ABA Journal.

The money Patterson said judges had “had to beg” for was a $392,000 allocation from the Mobile County Commission in 2017. Though courts are a state function, the commission agreed to a one-time stopgap measure last year that kept more than a dozen court attendants, law clerks and legal research assistants from being laid off.

However, when that money dries up at the end of the fiscal year, those staffers are expected to be laid off in local courts that have already had to reduce operational hours, court services and the frequency of jury trials because of funding shortfalls at the state level.

Ultimately, that will impact the number of cases the court can process and how quickly. Randy Helms, director of Alabama’s Administrative Office of Courts (AOC), said funding is a problem throughout the state, though he did say there have been some recent improvements.

Over the past two years, funding for Alabama’s unified judicial system has increased from $118 million to $127 million, including the $2.5 million hike approved in the current budget. However, much of that has gone to support expenses that were once covered at the local level.

According to Helms, AOC made a decision in 2014 to let presiding judges’ circuit clerks in each circuit use their administrative funds to give employees merit raises provided they continued to fund them with local dollars.

Court employees are part of the state’s payroll, which meant AOC was paying for those increased salaries and then getting reimbursed with local funds collected by the circuits where those raises had been applied. It worked until those local funds started “drying up.” Most of the extra funding AOC received this year was used to support those 2014 merit raises.

“We made the determination to assume the cost of this money they’ve been paying locally for the raises given in 2014, and that’s what we’ve done with the bulk of that $2.5 million,” Helms said.

In cash-strapped courts like Mobile’s 13th Judicial Circuit, that decision wasn’t exactly celebrated. Others circuits raised the concern that, for the most part, only courts that had the local dollars to provide merit raises in 2014 were benefiting from this year’s judicial budget increase.

Gaines C. McCorquodale, the presiding judge in Alabama’s 1st Judicial Circuit, penned a stern letter to outgoing Chief Justice Lyn Stuart in late January laying out some of his concerns with using local funds to pay some state employees more than others in the same position.

“AOC has simply taken local money to increase the state paycheck for court system employees,” McCorquodale wrote. “You have apparently decided that a judicial assistant from a ‘wealthy’ circuit will be paid more than one from a ‘poor’ circuit. How can you be comfortable with that?”

Despite some of the criticisms, Helms said AOC was tasked with spreading an extra $2.5 million across 40 circuit courts and 67 counties. He said the allocation wasn’t “given to us just for Mobile County” or other counties that have been under duress from budget cuts.

However, Helms did note the state has done some things to help Mobile County. While it’s the state’s busiest docket, the 13th Circuit in Mobile is the only one with a court attendant, a law clerk or legal research assistants funded by AOC.

“There’s about 18 in Mobile, and we fund the salaries of nine of those positions,” he said.

He also noted that when strictly looking at state funding, the Mobile County Circuit Clerk’s office is funded for 67 percent of the staff it should ideally have. Other counties, such as Montgomery and Jefferson, are staffed at 55 percent and 57 percent, respectively. But both of those circuits receive supplements from their local county commissions.

One thing McCorquodale, Helms and Presiding Circuit Judge John Lockett seem to agree on, though, is that courts generate a lot of money from local fines, filing fees and other expenses absorbed by those using Alabama’s criminal and civil courts. The problem for the courts is that they often send out more of that money than they get to keep.

According to a study by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, local courts and the AOC collected $166 million in 2011, but more than 40 percent of that went to agencies or activities other than the courts. Some of those dollars go toward things related to the justice system, like indigent defense, prosecutors, jails and local funds available to the court. But others fund things that have nothing to do with criminal justice, like county general funds, state museums and parks.

“There is a notion that you pay all these court costs and they help fund the courts, but that’s just not true,” Helms said. “The vast majority of court costs, fees and fines go to all these other entities that aren’t court related. What has happened, quite frankly, is over the years when these entities have needed funding, the state has increased court costs.”

For instance, Mobile County courts were hoping for an additional $800,000 to keep basic operations adequately funded this year and didn’t get it. Yet, according to data collected by the circuit clerk’s office, the same courts disbursed more than $7 million to non-court functions in 2016 from court fines and fees collected locally. Data shows $4.5 million went to the state general fund, $52,000 went to conservation efforts and nearly $20,000 went to America Village, a “history and civics education center” in central Alabama. More data on recent disbursements made by local courts is available at lagniappemobile.com.

Lockett has been sounding the alarm about an impending “crisis” in the local court system since the fall of 2017, but even with millions passing through local coffers, neither he nor Helms think courts should be generating the funds they need to keep their operations afloat locally.

Helms said “it’s not a good way to fund the courts” and Lockett said adequate court funding “should be an obligation under the general fund of Alabama.”

“What Alabama has done is try to fund court operations with court costs, which is just an absolutely horrible way to do business,” Lockett said. “You get to the point where the judge begins to develop, at least indirectly, a financial interest in cases, which they should never have.”

Lockett also noted, when court fees are raised to a certain amount, they can also prevent some people from accessing the court system altogether.