Alabama’s Supreme Court refused to revisit a ruling favoring District Attorney Ashley Rich in a four-year lawsuit seeking additional funds from the Mobile County Commission.
After several failed attempts to increase the level of funding the county allocated to her office, Rich filed suit against the Commission in 2012.
In March, the Supreme Court ruled in Rich’s favor and concurred the county had failed to follow local laws requiring it to match salary adjustments at the county and state level for DA employees.
The ruling would have likely caused starting salaries for assistant district attorneys to jump from $46,000 to $103,000, plus millions in back pay owed by the county.However, 11 days after the court’s first 8-1 ruling, the county’s attorneys filed a motion asking for a rehearing to seek clarification on the issue of back pay as well as other implications of the ruling. Though the request added another five months to an already lengthy legal row, it was formally denied Friday morning.
For her staff, Rich said the decision was “something to smile about” after a week of high-profile trials and investigations.
“I’m very pleased the DA’s office has received another victory today in the application for rehearing. The county didn’t feel things were very clear, but the Supreme Court has sent a message that confirms things were very clear in their order.”
However, the legal battle doesn’t appear to be over just yet. Procedurally, the confirmation of the Supreme Court’s order only sends the case back to Monroe County Circuit Court Judge George Elbrecht, who presided over the original lawsuit after local judges recused themselves.
Elbrecht will then issue an order “consistent with the Supreme Court’s ruling,” which Rich said should translate to the county increasing their funding to her office.
However, the county still has the option to appeal any order Elbrecht makes, and though it’s unclear exactly how commissioners will proceed, an official statement Friday afternoon vowed “further proceeding in the trial court.”
“The commission’s counsel in this matter, LaVeeda Battle, has carefully reviewed the Supreme Court’s earlier opinion and determined the county is in full compliance with what the court has directed the county to do and states the county has paid the district attorney everything her office is due,” the statement reads. “There have been very public differences in how the district attorney reads the Supreme Court opinion and how the county interprets the opinion.”
The statement goes on to say the county is “prepared to meet its financial challenges in a reasonable way,” though there’s been no interest from the county in accepting the settlement offer Rich proposed in the spring — one she claims would be less costly than what the Supreme Court has ordered.Speaking with Lagniappe, Rich also questioned why the county attempted to appeal the Supreme Court’s decision if its attorney feels like the county was already in compliance with it.
“It should be over at this point. This entire time, I’ve had my offer of settlement on the table and the county has done nothing,” Rich said. “So many legal fees have been expended by the county to fight this battle, and the taxpayers shouldn’t be asked to fund the ridiculousness of any further appeals.”
Yet Rich has also spent money “fighting this battle.”
According to records obtained by Lagniappe, Rich’s office has paid about $154,000 to the Helmsing Leach Law Firm for related litigation between 2012 and 2015, while the county has billed the law firm of LaVeeda Battle just under $300,000 during the same time period.
However, since the case became active again with the ruling earlier this year, both agencies have no doubt added to those legal costs. In the meantime, Rich has continued to face funding cuts on the state level and changes to Mobile’s municipal fines have impacted local revenue as well.
Just since the motion for rehearing was submitted in March, Rich said she’s continued a trend of staffing reductions by dissolving three positions at her office and laying off employees. With the budgetary restrictions and a growing caseload, Rich said her office is “drowning.”
“We are so barely keeping our head above water with the employees I have left here in the office,” Rich said. “Right now, we’re prosecuting Hiawatha Robinson for the murder of his child, and this week, I’ve been consumed with the horrific murders of six people in Citronelle.”