It was like the emperor had no clothes, except the emperor was actually retired Mobile County Circuit Court Judge John Lockett, and he was, in fact, almost fully dressed.
But early in his career, Lockett had been called up from Mobile to fill in for a judge in a rural county who had recused from a case. Lockett drove to the courthouse an hour or two north of here before realizing he forgot, of all things, his robe.
“I told the clerk I forgot to bring my robe and she said, ‘No problem, you can use the district judge’s robe … he’s never here,’” Lockett recalled last week. Lockett, who was a judge in one of the state’s busiest circuits for more than 20 years — a circuit where judges are assigned hundreds of cases at any time — said he was surprised to hear it.
“What do you mean he’s never here?” Lockett asked.
“He usually has one docket a week and sometimes two, but not if it’s hunting season,” the clerk said.
Trial court judges are paid a uniform salary across Alabama and Lockett joked that he’d happily drive a few hours twice a week to enjoy such a light workload. But Lockett also used the anecdote last week to illustrate the need for judicial reallocation in Alabama, where judgeships can be removed from counties with small caseloads and diverted to counties with large caseloads.
Pursuant to legislation passed in 2017, the Judicial Resources Allocation Commission is tasked with the annual review of the need for increasing or decreasing the number of judgeships in each district court and circuit court. Using three years of data from a weighted caseload study and considerations such as population and judicial duties, the commission prepares a report for the governor and Legislature ranking the need for judgeships in each circuit, and recommending which counties are in the greatest need of additional judges.
Although the data has been complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the annual report — most recently published on Jan. 5, 2022 — has been consistent. Rather than reallocate any underperforming positions, the commission recommends creating 12 new circuit judgeships statewide including two each in Mobile and Baldwin counties, while also creating eight new district court judgeships in eight counties, including Mobile and Baldwin.
The proposal — funding 20 additional judicial salaries plus accompanying staff and benefits — carries an estimated price tag of $8.2 million. But in spite of similar recommendations from the commission for two years in a row, the positions have not been created. Explanations vary.
According to the bill establishing the commission, judgeships can only be moved from one county to another, not created. Further, judgeships can only be moved in the event of a vacancy due to death, retirement, resignation or removal from office, and they cannot be moved from the same circuit more than once every two years.
“The way the process works, as I understand it, is when there is a declared vacancy, the chief justice is supposed to call a meeting and that gives an opportunity for a move to occur,” said State Sen. Greg Albritton, who represents portions of Baldwin and Escambia counties, which are nearly on opposite ends of the weighted caseload study. “To my knowledge, that has never happened.”
Mobile County’s judicial caseload has come under increasing scrutiny lately from elected officials in the legislative and executive branches in light of a recent spike in violent crime. Currently, more than 300 murder cases are pending in the county, with as many as 124 murder defendants out on bond. Last week, the judges of Mobile County held an unprecedented news conference to respond to the criticism, with Presiding Judge Michael Youngpeter calling it a “multi-dimensional problem” caused by more than an underfunded court system.
“Last week, some public officials claimed the criminal justice system is broken, that the system is contributing to the wave of violence, and that our judges are essentially accomplices to violent crime,” Youngpeter said in prepared remarks. “That is offensive and false … the political ‘blame game’ is both wrong and harmful. We understand — and public officials understand it, too — that there is no easy fix for the rise in violent crime in Mobile and nationwide. But the judges certainly cannot be blamed for the shortfall in Mobile police officers of over 100 positions, the failure of witnesses to appear for hearings and trial, family structures that are eroded or broken, the popularization of violence in our entertainment and culture, [and] the continued explosion in the sale of illegal drugs and guns.”
Youngpeter said in spite of disruptions from COVID-19, Mobile County held more jury trials and disposed of more felony indictments than any other circuit in the state. During a conversation afterward, Youngpeter again defended the performance of judges in the county, but acknowledged the need for additional judges and staff. The reallocation process is also “problematic,” he admitted, adding the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) is less than transparent about how funding from the Legislature is allocated to individual circuits.
“We’ve got a good bench,” he said. “You can’t come down here, take the office of a circuit judge and not be willing to work. It’s a busy circuit, and it has been busy. I’ve been to conferences and [our caseload is] a shock to other judges in the state. Someone told me one circuit judge’s caseload in Mobile County is more than all the open cases in federal court (in the Southern District of Alabama).”
Speaking of the Judicial Resource Allocation Commission’s recommendation to add two circuit judges to Mobile County, Youngpeter said it would be helpful, but support staff is also key. He compared the county’s caseload to bailing out a boat that is constantly refilling with water.
“Two more judges would divide up the caseload less so — we’d also have to reconfigure courtrooms — but the key is getting some of these pending cases to the point where you can set it for trial,” he said. “Because 90 percent are going to be resolved before trial, through a plea agreement or a settlement or whatever.”
Youngpeter said while the Legislature has provided increasing funding to the court system over the past several years, that money hasn’t necessarily trickled down to circuits in need.
“The AOC gets whatever they get from the state, and they start dividing it,” he said. “In Mobile, we’ve always felt we haven’t gotten our fair share based on the caseload we have.”
Lockett agreed, adding that during his time on the bench, the AOC’s funding formula “hasn’t exactly been a transparent process.”
“The Supreme Court has its own budget, which they prepare and submit to the Legislature, the appellate courts have their own budget, then you have the AOC — run by the Alabama director of the courts and the chief justice — and they prepare a budget for everything else, all the trial courts, the clerks offices, etc.,” Lockett explained. “Typically there is just one line item that is supposed to cover the personnel for all the courts, and [the AOC] ultimately reallocates the money, and they make the decision as to how many personnel an individual circuit may have. My ongoing discussion with them is that the AOC has case management statistics to determine how many judges and clerks a circuit needs, but no data for staff or other needs. It’s been a closely guarded secret.”
Indeed, in the Legislature’s 2023 General Fund Budget signed into law last week, the trial courts statewide received a line item budget of $201,195,155. Of that, just $1,048,228 was specifically earmarked for Mobile County “to offset a one-time reduction in funding of support personnel through a memorandum of understanding with the city of Mobile and Mobile County.” But otherwise, there are few designated allocations.
Youngpeter explained that a three-year deal with the city of Mobile and Mobile County Commission to provide as much as $500,000 each expires this year, necessitating the Legislative earmark. But otherwise, it appears funding or staffing adjustments may not be realized.
Separately, while time is expiring on the current legislative session, a group of state senators have revived a bill from last year to create additional circuit judgeships in Madison, Autauga, Chilton, Elmore and Baldwin counties. Senate Bill 103 would also require the Judicial Allocation Commission to award the first vacant judgeship to Madison County. The bill was introduced in January, but hasn’t moved out of the judiciary committee.
In a brief statement, Presiding Circuit Court Judge Clark Stankoski of Baldwin County said “we desperately need additional judges,” but “the only avenue I know to ask for is our legislative delegation.”
“Although we are equal branches of government, we must ask them for all things financial,” he said. Baldwin County ranks third in need for circuit court judges and first in need for district court judges, according to the Allocation Commission’s January report.
Albritton said those pleas haven’t fallen on deaf ears, also pointing to the judicial system’s increasing budget for the past several years.
“We do appropriate [the money] and we try to give as little as direction as possible so the agencies will have the freedom to do what they need to,” he said. “We do have opportunities to be more persuasive, but generally our job is to appropriate the amount of money within the resources we have for agencies to function properly.”
But, like Stankoski, Albritton cited the separation of powers. Often, he said, the judicial branch or executive branch will withhold certain information or data from the legislative branch, preventing many efforts to earmark funding.
“It is difficult, from my perspective, to get good information from any agency because of the protectionism that’s there,” Albritton said.
Chief Justice Tom Parker did not respond to a request for comment, but Julia Weller, clerk of the Supreme Court, acknowledged Parker “is very involved with everything” when it comes to statewide trial courts.
“According to the Constitution, we elect a chief justice for a reason … to set up a hierarchy,” Weller told Lagniappe during a conversation in January. “For that reason, the chief justice can pick the director of the courts, and that person kind of governs the trial courts.”
Parker, who was elected chief justice in 2018, appointed Rich Hobson as director of the AOC in 2019. Lagniappe reached out to both offices in recent years for more information about the AOC’s lucrative e-filing contract with a Mobile-based company partially owned by former Lt. Gov. Steve Windom, but was repeatedly denied information.
In 2020, when the Supreme Court issued a request for proposals for a new e-filing system for appellate courts, Lagniappe was again denied information. According to Weller, the appellate court contract was eventually awarded to Thomson Reuters, but Parker and Hobson are refusing to release the contract, citing proprietary information.
Then, last November, an audit by the Alabama Department of Examiners of Public Accounts found the Alabama Supreme Court violated “state laws and regulations” regarding oversight of contracts. One was an unspecified “legal services contract” and the second was a “professional services contract” later identified as “a contract for information technology consulting services paid on a state warrant from appropriated funds.”
“As a result, the Legislative Oversight Committee and the public were not aware of the court’s contracts for professional and legal services,” the audit found.
The report does not disclose any other details about the contracts, including when they were awarded over the four-year examination period from 2016-20, who they were awarded to, or any performance terms or financial conditions.
The Thomson Reuters contract never appeared on the agenda of the Legislative Oversight Committee, but Weller said it was indeed presented to the committee in December 2020. Lagniappe has not yet been able to verify that claim. The two contracts mentioned in the examiners’ report were “very small things,” Weller said, but she declined to provide any additional details. A follow-up call this week was also unfruitful.
Weller said she empathizes with trial courts in need of additional resources, adding she frequently comes out of pocket for expenses related to her own office. The judicial system only accounts for about 3 percent of the general fund budget, she said, and generates far more revenue for the state than it receives.
“The chief justice should be commended,” she said, suggesting Parker doesn’t seek excessive funding from the Legislature in part because he is a fiscal conservative. “I’ve never seen anybody squeeze money like he does.”
Yet Albritton, a member of the Legislative Oversight Committee, said he was unaware of the Thomson Reuters contract or the Examiners’ recent report noting the Supreme Court withheld other contracts from public scrutiny. He suggested there may be an opportunity to hold a hearing on the matter.
“As far as the executive and the judiciary, I think it is our duty as the Legislature to have as much oversight as legally feasible,” he said. “I’m aware the judicial system does not agree with that opinion and now you have one of those classic examples of branches of government at odds. I think the Legislature needs help from the judiciary to get a handle on where we are [with funding]. But they protect their turf, so that’s where we are.”
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