After staying a criminal case being used to argue for greater court funding, the Alabama Supreme Court has given Mobile County Judge James Patterson one week to explain why he shouldn’t be held in contempt of court for continuing to argue his point.
The legal row started when Patterson entered an order in late September instructing Circuit Clerk JoJo Schwarzauer to begin using “10 percent of court fees and costs collected from litigants in Mobile County” to help fund her office, as opposed to sending those funds to the state.
The order was a strategic attempt by Patterson to help stabilize Schwarzauer’s office, which has been reeling from state budget cuts that have already led to layoffs, reductions in services and increased workloads.
Attorney General Steve Marshall’s office quickly filed a motion intervening in the case and asked the Alabama Supreme Court to vacate Patterson’s order.
Marshall’s office argued Patterson’s order in effect made the state a defendant in a case it is prosecuting. Despite the funding issues facing courts across the state, the attorney general’s office accused Patterson of trying to legislate from the bench.
“It is easy to understand how the circuit court, or any state agency, can become frustrated with how agencies are funded, but that is an issue for the legislative branch,” Assistant Attorney General James Davis wrote. “The judiciary can weigh in on such matters only when a proper case or controversy is before it, one that includes the correct parties, the right venue and provides the right notice.”
“This isn’t that case,” Davis added.
A hearing on the matter was scheduled in Mobile on Wednesday, where a representative from the attorney general’s office was expected to argue the state’s opposition to Schwarzauer withholding a percentage of the money it regularly receives from local court filings.
The issue seemed to be gaining traction outside of the courtroom, too. Last week, the Mobile Bar Association sent a notification to its members urging them to attend the hearing and to support Patterson’s order, citing the “threat to public safety posed by insufficient judicial funding.”
However, with a pair of filings on Oct. 16, the state Supreme Court scrapped the planned hearing and managed to put Patterson in a bit of a hot seat. That’s because, in one of those filings, the high court said it had previously ordered a stay in the case on Oct. 5.
Put simply, a stay is an order in a legal proceeding that halts any further legal process. While a court can subsequently lift a stay and resume those proceedings, all parties involved in the litigation are supposed to refrain from entering any new filings when one is still in place.
The record shows Patterson filed an amended version of his original order to Schwarzauer on Oct. 12, which would have been a week after that stay was supposedly issued. Earlier in the week, seven of the nine justices signed onto an order giving Patterson seven days to explain why.
“It is ordered that Judge James T. Patterson show cause in writing, within seven days of the date of this order, as to the basis for jurisdiction to enter an order in violation of the stay and why he should not be held in contempt of court,” the order states.
However, in a response filed on the same day, Patterson told the justices he “was not made aware of” nor served any notice of the “court’s order from Oct. 5, 2018, staying these proceedings.”
“My review of the clerk’s record in [this case] this morning after I was served with your show cause order shows no indication whatsoever of any order staying this case,” he wrote. “Please accept my apologies as I had no knowledge of your order granting said stay.”
It’s worth noting the Alacourt System, which allows the public to access state court filings online, showed no indication of any filing from the supreme court on Oct. 5 for more than a week. The court a has a separate appellant filing system, but the Oct. 5 order staying the case wasn’t filed in the public system until Oct. 22.
The high court has yet to respond to the justification Patterson offered, but if the court were to find him in contempt, he could face legal fines or other sanctions. It’s possible some of those could include jail time, but that would be highly unusual in a legal dispute between two courts.
Meanwhile, the criminal case that has served as the backdrop for all of this legal infighting appears to be moving forward unaffected. The AG’s office has so far declined to comment on any of the proceedings related to this case or Patterson’s order redirecting local court filing fees.
Patterson filed his controversial motion after Mandy Nicole Brady, who was facing charges for meth trafficking, was mistakenly released from Mobile Metro Jail ahead of her trial.
Because the lack of adequate staffing in Schwarzauer’s office played a role in her mistaken release, Patterson used Brady’s case to make his argument for retaining more judicial funds locally.
After spending nearly a month as a free woman, Brady was returned to police custody last month. Her attorney filed a notice of intent to plead guilty on Wednesday, though it made no mention of the ongoing funding dispute that has become part of her criminal proceedings.
Correction: An earlier version of the article incorrectly suggested a renewed motion to stay filed by the attorney general’s office on Oct. 12 gave the impression “the state was unaware” the supreme court had previously issued a stay in Brady’s case on Oct. 5. The office was aware of the order, and its Oct. 12 motion specifically references it.