The effects of limited funding for Mobile County’s judicial system — something Presiding Circuit Judge John Lockett has repeatedly raised concerns about — could soon be felt, and local courts will soon be operating with smaller staffs, limited hours and fewer weeks for jury trials.
Lockett made the announcement in a release to the Mobile Bar Association Thursday morning, notifying the public that, due to a lack of adequate state funding, local courts will lay off a number of employees in the fall and begin reducing services as early as next week.
“Despite the state trial court budget receiving $2.5 million more than initially requested by the Chief Justice, we have been informed that none of this amount will be allocated to address the personnel shortages in our circuit,” Lockett wrote. “Thus, the circuit clerk’s office will remain short 19-full-time employees and an additional 14 to 16 more employees in the judges’ offices and court administration will be laid off by September 30, 2018.”
Lockett said that will mean longer delays in all litigation, including criminal cases, protection from abuse petitions, child support and custody matters and civil cases. He said office hours and services will also be cut sharply beginning June 1 in order to give court clerks, judges and judicial staff members time to do the work they’re being asked to do with less.
Effective June 1, 2018:
• The circuit clerk’s office will be closed from noon to 1 p.m. every afternoon.
• The clerk’s office will no longer answer telephone calls until after 2:30 p.m.
Effective January 1, 2019:
• The number of weeks available for jury trials will be reduced from 31 to 24, and each two-week jury term will be separated by at least one non-jury week, so the judges’ remaining staff can address the motions and pleadings which accumulated during those trials.
• Attorneys and all parties are encouraged to communicate with the courts through the Alacourt system or through email, as the remaining staff’s ability to respond to incoming phone calls in the judge’s offices will be “severely limited.”
“We regret that we will no longer have sufficient personnel to timely dispose of most matters; however, every effort will be made to address court filings in an orderly fashion,” Lockett added. “We all appreciate your patience during these difficult times.”
While the expected changes will be sudden, Lockett has been trying to stave away the problem since 2017, when he penned a letter to Mobile’s legislative delegation notifying them of the need the 13th Circuit — Alabama’s busiest — had for additional funding.
When the chips fell in Montgomery this year, though, none the additional funding allocated to the state court system was redirected to Mobile.
The issue has already caused troubles locally. In April, a capital murder suspect was mistakenly released from Mobile Metro Jail. District Attorney Ashley Rich’s office blamed the mixup on funding cutbacks in the circuit clerk’s office.
Many of the positions soon to be cut would have been cut last year were it not for a $392,000 emergency appropriation from the Mobile County Commission. Commissioners were clear then they would not continue to pick up the state’s burden of funding its court system.
Though, some have argued that, despite this being the state’s problem to the solve, Mobile County should help subsidize cuts to local courts at the state level like other, similarly sized Alabama counties do. The same issue has come up in ongoing judicial races as well.