Judge's order says Alabama court 'literally had to beg for money' to pay staff

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Corrected: When granting a continuance last Friday, Circuit Judge James Patterson of Alabama’s 13th Judicial Circuit in Mobile County advised the litigants they likely wouldn’t get another court date this year due to funding shortfalls.

“We literally had to beg for money to keep the Circuit afloat recently to pay clerks in the Circuit Clerk’s office, and to pay our law clerks,” wrote the judge, in an order posted to Twitter by Keith Lee of LawyerSmack and Associate’s Mind. “I hate that you lost your jury setting. You probably won’t get another this year, as we are booked through November, and there is no civil jury docket in December.”

In the order, Patterson says the Mobile County Commission gave the courts $400,000 earlier this year in order to fill the gap, but that was “a one-time deal.” If there’s no new funding for the courts by the end of September, the judge wrote, the 13th Judicial Circuit will have to lay off all its clerks. AL.com reports that 14 to 16 clerks could be affected.

Presiding Judge John Lockett of the 13th Judicial Circuit says the funding problems are likely to be felt by county residents with any kind of matter before the court. The clerk’s office is already not answering phones until 2:30 p.m., and next year, he says, the number of weeks available for jury trials will shrink from 31 to 24. This will slow down every kind of case—including criminal cases, even though defendants have a constitutional right to a speedy trial.

Alabamians say the problem is insufficient funding from the state, which under its constitution is responsible for funding the courts. A 2017 story from the Montgomery Advertiser says the Alabama court budget was cut in half between 2010 and 2013, after the Great Recession and a Republican takeover of the state legislature. Funding hasn’t been restored to 2010 levels. The court did receive a funding increase in the most recent state budget, AL.com says, but it went to merit raises for existing employees.

“The root of the problem seems to be that the judicial system does not have any voice in either the legislative or executive branch processes that determine the budgets for the judicial systems,” Jeremy Richter, an associate at Webster Henry in Birmingham, told the ABA Journal in an email. Richter is also an ABA Journal contributor.

Another part of the problem is specific to Mobile County, whose population Richter says has grown without a corresponding increase in court staff. Lockett says his circuit has some of the highest caseloads per judge in the state. A study by the National Center for State Courts found the 13th Judicial Circuit’s clerk needs 18 or 19 more law clerks than she has, he notes. Richter says the state has acknowledged that the circuit also needs more judges, but it may only reallocate judgeships when an existing judge leaves office.

Scott Hunter, who practices law throughout the Gulf Coast region, tells the ABA Journal that the underfunding has already hurt one of his clients in Mobile. In that case, an appeals court mooted his client’s child custody case because the judge who heard it was a juvenile court judge, who had no jurisdiction over family court matters. Hunter says the judge in question has been hearing custody cases for years, under a standing order from the presiding judge, because the two family judges in the circuit are overwhelmed.

Despite the ruling, Hunter was unable to have a family judge hear the case on remand. After his client’s appeals were exhausted, he says, her out-of-state ex simply kept the child.

“The order came back during his Christmas visitation, that everything in Mobile was void,” says Hunter. “And he says ‘I’m keeping the kid, there’s no order that says I have to give him back.’”

Last updated June 21 to correct the number of clerks the National Center for State Courts says are needed in Alabama’s 13th Judicial Circuit.

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