Legislation intended to generate funding for local courts is making slow progress, but area judges are continuing to lobby for its passage despite concerns over key parts of the bill.
Rep. Matt Simpson, R-Daphne, introduced House Bill 83 earlier this year. It was the first bill he sponsored as a freshman lawmaker and a direct result of stopgap funding the Mobile County Commission has provided to help shore up Alabama’s underfunded court system locally.
As Lagniappe has reported, the 13th Judicial Circuit of Mobile County has been facing a funding crisis for years due to budget cuts at the state level — one that’s already led to layoffs, reduced operational hours, sparse jury trials and critical mistakes in local courts.
While they aren’t a financial responsibility of Mobile County, local courts have received nearly $700,000 from the commission over the past two years as a last resort to avoid additional layoffs and reductions in services. Both years the county said it was a one-time deal.
Last year’s $300,000 appropriation from the county was made with the understanding judges in the 13th Circuit would work with legislators to develop and pass a local bill that would generate additional funding by increasing filing fees in Mobile County courts.
That understanding led to the Mobile County Preservation of Justice Act, which Simpson filed in early March. As a former prosecutor who’s worked in Mobile and Baldwin counties, Simpson highlighted the dire situation local courts are facing in the text of his pending legislation.
“The judges of the 13th Judicial Circuit have one of the highest caseloads in this state with over 25,000 filings in circuit court and over 41,000 in district court,” the bill reads. “Despite these staggering caseloads, there has been a significant reduction of state funding to the trial courts.”
It goes on to note that, despite an uptick in criminal cases, Mobile County courts have lost funding for one-third of the staff in the circuit clerk’s and circuit judges’ offices. At the same time, district judges are operating with half of the staff they had only a few years ago.
As written, Simpson’s legislation would raise civil and criminal filing fees in Mobile County district court by $25 and in circuit court by $100. The new fees wouldn’t be applied to cases in small claims, traffic and juvenile courts or in domestic relations and child support matters.
But while most of the judicial system and the local delegation agree funding in local courts has reached a critical level, not everyone agrees on how to solve the problem. The linchpin in Simpson’s bill — increasing filing fees — has also proved to be controversial in the past.
Discussing the issue last fall, County Commissioner Merceria Ludgood warned that some legislators would likely have concerns about “certain communities” being disproportionately affected — adding that previous bills had been deemed “dead on arrival” for that very reason.
Ludgood, who is an attorney herself, has previously said it would be better for the legislature to appropriate more funding to state courts rather than raising filing fees. Last week, she told Lagniappe “it’s already pricey” for residents who find themselves in the local legal system.
“It costs a lot just to get into the court system,” Ludgood said. “Then, because it’s not fully funded, you pay all of that money and you sit, and sit, and sit, and you wait.”
Sources familiar with the process have told Lagniappe concerns about increasing filing fees have already come up during discussions about Simpson’s proposed legislation, but because it’s still in its early stages, most legislators have not been willing to speak about it on the record.
At least one local judge is already taking his concerns to the delegation directly, though.
Circuit Judge James T. Patterson has been outspoken about the lack of funding in local courts for some time, and last week he emailed members of Mobile County’s legislative delegation to highlight “real-world” situations that “inadequate” funding is creating in local courtrooms.
Specifically, he focused on the cases of Harold Wallace, a capital murder suspect who was mistakenly released last spring, and Mandy Nicole Brady — an accused meth trafficer who was able to walk out of jail days before trial even though her bond had been revoked.
“[Wallace] was an accused murderer and stayed at-large for a week before recapture,” Patterson wrote. “This was also due to a lack of funding in the clerk’s office but wasn’t dealt with at the time other than by suspending the poor employee in the clerk’s office who made the mistake.”
Last year, Patterson filed an injunction in Brady’s criminal case declaring Alabama laws that direct fees collected in local courts to fund other state functions to be unconstitutional. It was ultimately vacated at the direction of the Alabama Supreme Court, but the distribution of the existing court fees still remains a concern for some.
“We have a lot of filing fees and they’re going to a lot of different places,” Ludgood said recently. “It’s not my call, but an analysis of where all of that money is going is probably in order to see whether we have some fatted cows out there while other aspects are starving.”
While it isn’t a full analysis, information provided to Lagniappe by Alabama’s Administrative Office of Courts shows that fees collected at the state and local level generate millions for the state. There are roughly 40 statewide filing fees, but five collected only in Mobile County.
To put that revenue in context, local courts collected and disbursed more than $7 million to non-court functions in 2016 alone, but had to borrow $392,000 from the Commission the following year to avoid more than a dozen layoffs.
What the future holds for Simpson’s local legislation is unknown, and so far, no statewide bills have been proposed to directly address court funding. While funding is in place through the current budget, it’s unclear what the county will do next year if legislators can’t find a solution.
“The most I can say is we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Ludgood said.
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