While Alabama’s trial courts have incurred $64 million in mandated budgetary increases over the past ten years, appropriations have only increased by $32 million. That was a real blow and hurt the courts in every county. It should be noted that the court system has no control over these increases. They are for costs such as health insurance premiums, employee retirement contributions, funding for newly-created judgeships, and cost of living increases enacted by the Legislature. As a result of being grossly underfunded, the court system started layoffs in 2003. I understand that for the past three years a hiring freeze has been in effect and no merit raises have been granted.
Following the introduction of Gov. Bentley’s budget for fiscal year 2012, which further reduced funding for the courts, the Chief Justice made repeated requests to the Legislature to adequately fund the court system. A funding mechanism was later proposed with the filing of House Bill 457 by Rep. Patricia Todd. This bill would have imposed an additional one dollar tax on tobacco products. The fiscal note on the bill was estimated at $280 million, with $9 million being earmarked for the courts. The bill never received a vote in the House Ways & Means Committee. In order to address the funding crisis, on April 12th, the Chief Justice issued an Administrative Order which includes:
• Authorization for each presiding circuit judge to close court offices to the public each Friday, so that employees can work undisturbed to process paperwork;
• Reduction in the number of civil jury trial weeks by 50%;
• Closing all multi-site court facilities in counties with more than one court facility; and
• Request for jurors to waive juror fees & mileage.
In addition to the 270 employees who were laid off during the past two years, beginning October 1st, an additional 279 employees will now lose their jobs. These layoffs will hurt all Alabama citizens. Some examples of how this will impact local courts are:
• To be fully staffed, Montgomery County should have 51 employees in the Circuit Clerk’s office. Presently, there are 34 employees and this number will be further reduced to 22 in October.
• Shelby County, which is the fastest growing county in the state, should have 30 employees in the Clerk’s office. Presently, there are 16 employees and this number will reduce to ten in October.
• My home county of Barbour has two courthouses. My long-time friend, Circuit Clerk David Nix, should have seven employees to handle the responsibilities of his office. He currently has five employees and that number will be reduced to 3 in October.
It’s abundantly clear that we are facing a dire situation in our court system. Our citizens should best prepare themselves for extreme delays in the processing of civil, domestic relations, and child support cases. Criminal cases will be delayed and that leads to all sorts of problems. Collections of court-ordered monies, which include restitution for crime victims, will diminish greatly.
It has always been said that justice delayed is justice denied. It’s quite apparent that justice has taken a severe hit in Alabama. Every Alabamian is entitled to a court system that is adequately funded and fully functional. That’s a right afforded by the Constitution. As I have stated many times before, it’s way past time for Alabama to overhaul its antiquated tax system and provide basic services to our citizens. We can no longer deal with problems by ignoring them. Gov. Bentley and the current group of Legislators inherited a fiscal mess when they took office, but that doesn’t mean they should do as Governors and Legislators have done for years, refuse to face reality. That reality is the state must find new revenues in order to adequately fund all essential needs.
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