Most of the 13th Circuit Court is “ecstatic” about the city and county’s recent pledge to help alleviate its funding crisis, but at least one judge is still urging state legislators to require that support by redirecting a portion of a coveted new revenue stream to the court system.
As Lagniappe reported, both the Mobile County Commission and the city of Mobile passed resolutions this week pledging to spend a combined $3 million over the next three years to supplement funding for local courts that has been cut at the state level over time.
Local circuit and district courts have been dealing with a funding crisis for some time now, and even though it is the responsibility of the state government, Mobile County previously helped prop up the local judicial system in 2017 and again in 2018 to the tune of $700,000.
Commissioners were not initially planning to continue that support in 2019.
However, that changed when State Rep. Barbara Drummond, D-Mobile, introduced a piece of local legislation that would have redirected 20 percent of the funding that Mobile County and all of its municipalities receive from the state’s Simplified Sellers Use Tax (SSUT).
The SSUT is an 8-percent flat tax on online sales the legislature enacted in 2016, and per the legislation, a percentage of what the state receives is distributed to Alabama’s counties and cities. Over the last three years, revenues from online sales have increased dramatically.
To avoid losing control of a portion of future SSUT revenue, the county and city opted to meet some of the court’s outstanding needs with their existing funding sources on the condition that the legislature would not move forward with Drummond’s proposed bill, HB 598.
If legislators in Mobile County’s Senate delegation are amiable to that compromise — and sources Lagniappe has spoken with suggest they are — it would fund the courts for three years and give local judges, legislators and municipal officials a chance to work on a more permanent solution in Montgomery.
On Wednesday, Presiding Circuit Judge John Lockett said he and most of the other judges on the 13th Circuit are “breathing a sigh of relief” in the wake of the pledge of support from the city and county. He said the money would help prevent further layoffs and add additional court staff.
“We were approaching a cliff, but now, I think we can work to avoid the worst possible consequences of this shortage of funding,” Lockett said. “We plan to spend the next couple of months meeting with the Administrative Office of Courts [AOC] and attorneys from the county and city to make sure the contracts are in order and we can start filling these positions.”
With a larger, though still not full staff, Lockett said the court would get the cases flowing at a much more acceptable rate than they have been over the past two years — a pace that has led to dockets piling up, delayed trials and a host of other logistical problems.
Lockett said having the county and city invested in the local court system would help officials grasp the importance of an adequately funded court system, which could translate to support for future, long-term fixes as they’re proposed in the state legislature.
However, previous attempts to shore up the courts and give the legislature time to find funding have proven unsuccessful. In fact, a local bill filed this year that would have raised additional revenue through filing fee increases died in the session over concerns of how those increases would impact low-income residents using Mobile County’s court system.
Statewide, AOC has received some small budget increases over the past two years, but those have not translated to any noticeable funding difference in Mobile. The lack of an identified long-term solution is one reason one local judge is still urging legislators to pass Drummond’s bill.
Circuit Judge James Patterson laid out his concerns in a fiery email that was sent to Mobile County’s legislative delegation as well as city and county officials Wednesday morning. In it, Patterson suggested that targeting a growing revenue source like the SSUT would force local leaders and others around the state to get serious about court funding.
“A non-binding unenforceable resolution from the county commission (two of whom are lame duck) and non-binding unenforceable resolution from the City of Mobile — a city with arguably the highest murder rate in the state is not the solution,” Patterson wrote. “The best and quickest solution to the entire problem is to bring HB 598 up for a vote on the Senate Floor and pass it.
“We cannot expect folks to take a job in our clerk’s office ‘hoping’ we get the funding promised by the city and county each year.” he added.
All three Mobile County commissioners declined to comment on Patterson’s claims, though the email was enough to prompt a response from Lockett, who said that Patterson is free to share his beliefs but “speaks only for himself in this regard.”
“The consensus of the bench and employees of the 13th Circuit is that of relief and gratitude for the county and the city’s response to our funding crisis and the public safety threat that it posed on our community,” Lockett wrote. “We all understand that this is not a permanent solution, and will continue our efforts to have the state begin to reassume its rightful responsibility to the public we all serve.”
More information about the county and city’s pledge to help the local court system is available here, and Patterson and Lockett’s full emails can be viewed below.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
It looks like you are opening this page from the Facebook App. This article needs to be opened in the browser.
iOS: Tap the three dots in the top right, then tap on "Open in Safari".
Android: Tap the Settings icon (it looks like three horizontal lines), then tap App Settings, then toggle the "Open links externally" setting to On (it should turn from gray to blue).