Photo | Shane Rice
Municipal Judge Shelbonnie Hall quickly scanned her schedule, looking for spaces where she could fit in a trial after a defendant in environmental court pleaded not guilty during a normal Wednesday arraignment docket.
Hall threw out a date in early October, but then thought better of it because of the roughly 100 other cases she would have to hear that day in Government Plaza. She started to bring up another date, this time in mid-October, but again it wouldn’t work due to that week’s docket being another 99 strong. Finally, Hall settled on Oct. 24, about a month from the arraignment date.
On the same day, inside a make-shift municipal courtroom on the Mobile Civic Center site, Judge Karlos Finley addressed hundreds of people waiting to plead in traffic court. A line of defendants stretched past the glass doors of the city-owned expo hall and down a long, dark hallway. More defendants and others, who had shown up as part of a 1,000-person docket scheduled that evening, waited in a holding area for their cases to be heard.
Mobile’s municipal judges are no strangers to large dockets, and teamed up to author a letter to members of the City Council, asking for raises and the appointment of fill-in judges, Presiding Judge Holmes Whiddon confirmed to Lagniappe.
“We need what we call fill-in, part-time judges, for when our full-time or part-time judges have to be out,” Whiddon said. “We’re not asking for new judges to be continuous. We just need what we call on-call judges to fill in.”
Issue with fill-in judges
The court had been using several fill-in, or as Whiddon calls them, “acting” judges, to serve this purpose, but an investigation by Lagniappe over the summer noted that those fill-in judges, including Charlie Graddick, were not appointed by the City Council. Whiddon defended the move in his first interview since the controversy, saying the city had done it for “years and years.”
“I think you’re familiar with issues, confusion and current standings that say we cannot use acting judges unless our regular judges are out of town … ,” Whiddon said. “So, for everybody to be on the safe side, for there not to be any controversy, we are asking the council to provide City Council-appointed judges who can serve when our regular judges are out of the office for vacation, for illness, when they have conflicts, when they have family emergencies or when we have to go for our judicial training or seminars.”
Graddick has since left the city to become the executive director of the state’s Pardons and Paroles Board, while the names of at least two other fill-in judges have been removed from the city’s website.
Graddick was appointed in 2017 as a judicial advisor and was made director of municipal court. However, several councilors argued only they could appoint him to an actual judgeship. Despite this and assurances from the mayor’s office that the former attorney general was only working on a fill-in basis, Graddick would oversee a weekly gun docket and roughly half of the weekly criminal arraignments, along with Whiddon.
Pay and caseload
Mobile’s municipal judges are among the lowest paid of any in the state’s largest cities. Whiddon, as presiding judge, makes $104,297 per year. Hall and Judge Carvine Adams, the other two full-time judges, take in $98,519 and 94,554 per year, respectively. Finley and Judge Bucky Thomas, as part-time judges, each make $52,554 per year. To compare, Graddick made $102,500 as judicial advisor to Mayor Sandy Stimpson and director of courts, according to information provided by the city through a records request from early July, fulfilled on Sept. 23.
The presiding municipal judge in Montgomery is set to make $130,000 per year, while the other full-time judge is set to make $120,000, according to information provided by spokesperson Griffith Waller. Part-time judges in the state’s capital city are paid $575 per session.
Huntsville’s full-time municipal judges make between $153,000 and $165,000 per year, according to a salary study by Auburn University, commissioned by the Alabama League of Municipalities.
While Montgomery has one fewer municipal judge than Mobile, Huntsville has two more, at four, city spokesperson Kelly Schrimsher said. Alonso Robinson is Huntsville’s presiding judge.
Whiddon doesn’t blame Stimpson or the City Council, but instead puts the responsibility for the low pay on the judges, including himself, who haven’t spoken up until now.
“These are just things that really we should have addressed years back and we didn’t,” Whiddon said. “We were never vocal requesting any type of salary increase, any type of benefit whatsoever.”
As for the judges’ caseloads, Whiddon said Mobile Municipal Court, which handles all violations of city ordinances and criminal district court misdemeanors, saw some 22,000 new traffic offenses last year and roughly 6,500 new criminal cases. Criminal cases have seen a steady increase over the last three years, Whiddon said. So much so that the judges had to split the criminal arraignments into two different sessions, he said.
The number of new cases, Whiddon said, doesn’t account for cases already working their way through the system.
“Each full-time judge has their own courtroom with continuous dockets and the due process protections we try to have in place with your arraignments, opportunities for disposition, plus trial, plus we also try to give people opportunities to be heard if they run into hardships or problems to take care of court orders or paying their fines,” he said. “So, say there’s 6,500 new criminal cases you see, that’s just the new case filings.”
Members of the City Council interviewed by Lagniappe for this story all said they’re willing to listen to the judges, as the start of the fiscal year approaches. Council Vice President Levon Manzie has assigned the issue to an ad-hoc committee for discussion.
“I think we have the hardest-working collection of municipal judges in the state,” Manzie said of the raises for the judges. “We ought to do something to work with our judges to alleviate this concern. We need to bring some fairness to the compensation for our judges.”
Manzie noted “stark disparities” between Mobile and other cities when it comes to pay for judges.
On appointing fill-in judges, Manzie said the council would do that “expeditiously.”
Councilman Fred Richardson also believes the city should do more to make up the difference between pay for local judges and those around the state.
“Based on what other cities are paying their judges, we’re very behind the times,” Richardson said. “It’s sad. We have to do better.”
As for appointing fill-in judges, Richardson said the set of state statutes creating Mobile’s current form of government, known as the Zoghby Act, would have to “guide us.”
“We’d have to find the right process,” he said. “They need help. There’s absolutely no doubt about it.”
Councilman Joel Daves, who is on the committee set to debate this issue, said he’s not against giving the judges more pay, he just wished they’d voiced concerns earlier in the process and not on the doorstep of a new fiscal year. Daves said the council will need to study the issue by determining what raise, or how many fill-in judges would be appropriate.
“We will need to compare salary and staffing information of our sister cities, but that’s going to take some time,” Daves said. “As I’ve said before, when we talked about the budget several weeks ago, it’s hard to find funding for things at the last minute.”
If the council and administration can work together to find the necessary funding for the raises and staffing, Daves said it would most likely go into effect the following fiscal year.
Whiddon said he thinks the judges would be fine with that. He said the judges hope a conversation can begin from this letter.
In addition to the gun docket, municipal court has a number of specialized dockets assigned to various judges. This includes environmental court, among others. Whiddon, who has been on the bench in some capacity since 1992 and was promoted to presiding judge in 2006, used to oversee the environmental docket on a weekly basis. Whiddon said the number of environmental cases in front of Hall has grown quite a bit in recent years, after falling off in the 2000s.
“I did environmental court since 1992 or 1993, whenever they first established it … up until four years ago, and I can see that the environmental cases do look like they have increased,” he said. “At times in the past, in the late 1990s, you would see close to 2,000 [cases]. It fell off to around 1,000 and I think right now it’s between 1,200 and 1,500. So, yeah, the environmental docket is a very busy docket.”
As for the 1,000-person traffic docket, Whiddon said while traffic court averages in the hundreds of defendants each week, this docket in particular was due to court cancellations due to events in the expo hall.
The gun docket is also “very busy and productive,” Whiddon said.
“We’re still getting a handle on the gun docket, as far as the volume of cases and what’s required in that,” he said. “Those are a little more serious cases.”
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