The Mobile City Council is looking at either amending an ordinance to appoint more municipal judges, or will appoint a rotating five-member group of fill-in judges to ease some of the tension felt by long dockets in the city’s court system.
Currently, the council has appointed five judges total, three of whom are full-time and two are part-time. However, Presiding Judge Holmes Whiddon and other judges are upset about the size of the dockets and their inability to take vacation due to a lack of council-appointed jurists.
Whiddon told councilors an interpretation of a state law allows for mayor-appointed fill-in judges to take the bench only when other judges have a conflict. If the council-appointed judges are sick, on vacation or otherwise unable to serve, a mayor-appointed judge cannot legally take the bench. Given that interpretation, Whiddon said the court stopped a practice it had been doing for years.
“We had always used mayor-appointed, fill-in judges … ,” he said. “If we want to go on vacation, have family emergencies or other unexpected events, we can’t use acting judges and we don’t have anyone we can call.”
The court was the subject of controversy earlier this year because former Attorney General and Mobile County Circuit Court Judge Charles Graddick, who was appointed by Mayor Sandy Stimpson as a judicial advisor and municipal court administrator, had taken the bench to hear cases, which councilors believed he was not eligible to do.
Graddick was removed from the bench by the administration out of an “abundance of caution” before leaving the city to take an appointment as director of the state’s pardons and paroles board.
There are a variety of dockets in municipal court. Some are specialized, like the environmental docket or the gun docket. Average docket size ranges from 25 cases to 500 cases, Whiddon said. A traffic court docket earlier this year consisted of roughly 1,000 cases and had to be held in a courtroom annex inside the Mobile Civic Center exhibit hall.
“It’s very tight,” Whiddon said. “It’s a lot of pressure on judges.”
Environmental court has seen an incredible increase in cases since the city began stepping up blight enforcement, Judge Shelbonnie Hall told councilors.
“That docket is — there could be 99 cases on it,” she said.
The arraignment docket had to be split because it had so many cases on it, Whiddon said.
When asked if the court would be better served by more judges, or just the appointment of fill-in, “on-call” judges, Whiddon said he would prefer fill-in judges for the next fiscal year. Whiddon said the court sometimes has an overflow on the arraignment docket, but it’s not “consistent.” The issue, he reiterated, was when a judge takes vacation or is sick.
When asked by Councilman Joel Daves about how their caseloads compare to judges in other cities around the state, Whiddon could only offer anecdotal evidence suggesting the reaction is mixed.
“What we’ve seen is some of them tell you their docket numbers are higher and others say it’s nowhere close to ours,” he said. “When the presiding judge in Huntsville visited, he could not believe our docket numbers, and that’s a pretty active court in Huntsville.”
Part-time Judge Karlos Finley said the court cannot track the numbers the way it used to because of the city’s new software system.
Before adding more judges to the court, Daves said it might be helpful to know what’s happening in peer cities.
Positive changes to the court also causes stress on the number of judges available, Whiddon said. Before he left, Graddick restructured municipal court to more closely mirror Circuit Court. The changes led to specialized dockets and to make those changes work, the court needs specialized prosecutors and other staff assigned to a specific courtroom, he said. If a judge has to be out, it can cause issues on these dockets.
“If one of our judges is out … everyone is just holding their breath and nothing happens … ,” he said.
While Graddick was able to get mayor-appointed, acting judges to work for free, Whiddon said, those jurists have been historically paid between $200 and $400 per docket. During the 2020 fiscal year, Whiddon said these judges would be paid out of the court’s administration fund. The fund, he said, is created from various court fees. As of September the fund had $74,000 in it and could be as high as $85,000 by the end of November, Whiddon said. After the fiscal year, he said, he would like the judges to be paid from the city’s general fund budget.
In addition to more help, Whiddon asked the councilors for raises for both full-time and part-time judges.
Whiddon receives $104,297 per year, while Hall and Judge Carvine Adams take in $98,519 and $94,554 per year, respectively. The part-time judges each make $52,554 per year.
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 city 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.
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