An editorial appeared in the Tuscaloosa News on March 19th dealing with the funding of Alabama’s judicial system that is certainly worth reading. The writer pretty much hit the nail on the head relating to the issue of funding Alabama’s court system. I got the impression that the writer believes the system is important and should be adequately funded. Clearly, the Legislature has a duty to meet the system’s needs. I am including the editorial in its entirety for your edification.
COURT FUNDING A PRESSING ISSUE IN ALABAMA
Unless you are charged with a criminal offense, or become involved in a civil lawsuit, why should you care if Alabama’s court system grinds to a halt for lack of funding? The reasons may be more pressing than you think. Last week, Gov. Robert Bentley invoked proration of 10.6% in the General Fund budget, an unavoidable move as tax revenues have not met expectations. Across state agencies, that will feel like a cut of more than 20% because the fiscal year is half over.
The state court system may not feel the full weight of proration because of a court ruling in the 1990s that limits how much can be cut through proration. But that won’t protect Alabama courts from cuts next fiscal year. The governor’s proposed budget for state courts next year is $126 million – 15% less than Chief Justice Chuck Malone requested. In the 2010-11 fiscal year, state courts received $152 million.
Already in Tuscaloosa County, criminal cases are routinely delayed because courts are over-crowded. The Circuit Court needs an additional judge to handle the case load that is a natural result of our growing population. For those who are innocent of the offenses for which they have been charged, such delays are unjust. Whether they are held in jail or waiting trial on bail, they deserve their day in court as soon as possible.
Those who are guilty, of course, aren’t so eager. They know their best chance of avoiding justice is to delay it. Witnesses move away or their memories fade. Investigators take new jobs or evidence grows cold. But even more significant, there is no real threat of a jury trial. The reality is that only a small minority of cases ever come to trial. Most are settled out of court. As a practical matter, it would be impossible to try all the charges brought by grand juries. As court dockets back up, prosecutors lose their best leverage – threat of a trial – to get a guilty plea from a guilty defendant.
Businesses, families, employers and employees – citizens in general – depend on our court system to establish civil rights and protections of all sorts. Our courts also face a leadership challenge. Republican voters chose Roy Moore as their candidate for chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. Democrats will have Harry Lyons. It isn’t clear that either possesses the wisdom, tact and demeanor to manage the impending crisis for state courts.
Moore, who served as chief justice from 2001-03 until he was removed from office, said last week that he would seek to educate the public and lobby the Legislature for adequate funding. That’s a good answer, and we hope he possesses those skills. Lyons said he might consider challenging the Legislature’s authority to cut funding, creating a constitutional crisis. That doesn’t sound so promising. Alabama’s courts need adequate funding. With the time remaining in his job, we hope Malone can work with the Legislature to avert a crisis.
While I may not agree with everything the editorial writer said, I totally agree that the court system must be adequately funded. I also believe the Legislature has a constitutional duty to do so. I believe most Alabamians agree that the courts must remain open and that adequate funding must be made available.
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