By: Phillip Rawls
Alabama's chief justice is ordering a reduction in the number of weeks for trials in courthouses statewide and is authorizing the presiding circuit judge at every courthouse to close court offices one day per week if necessary because of budget cuts.
Alabama's trial courts haven't been cut nearly as much as most state programs, but Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb said years of underfunding are catching up. She predicted defendants will sit in jail longer while waiting for trial, people with civil suits and divorce cases will wait much longer to have them heard by a judge, and the courts' ability to generate fines and fees to help fund state government will decline.
"The courts are not a nicety. They are a necessity," Cobb said at a news conference Tuesday in the Alabama House chamber.
Cobb said she is signing an order reducing the number of weeks for civil trials by half and the weeks for criminal trials by one-third. She said that's necessary because the trial courts won't have enough employees left after two rounds of layoffs to conduct full court schedules.
She said court employees will still report to work five days per week, but the presiding judge at each courthouse will have the discretion to close court offices one day per week to give the remaining workers time to handle the multiple duties they will have to assume due to layoffs.
She said the court system laid off 120 workers last year during budget cuts and is planning to cut another 150 of its 2,100 personnel on May 1. She's anticipating another 300 layoffs when the new budget year begins Oct. 1 unless the Legislature provides extra money. She said she hopes that will come, in part, through legislation to increase Alabama's cigarette tax by $1 per pack.
The trial courts' appropriation for fiscal 2011 had been $154.8 million, but it has been cut to $152 million due to the state bringing in less tax revenue than expected. For the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, the Legislature is considering appropriating $138.9 million, which is nearly a $16 million reduction from what judges had been expecting this year.
Montgomery County's presiding circuit judge, Charles Price, said he will talk with the county's other judges before deciding whether to close court offices one day per week. But he said, "I don't see how we are going to be able to function."
Cobb said delaying trials will only save $300,000 this year, mainly through juror expenses, but there won't be enough employees, including security officers, left to conduct a full court schedule with proper courtroom security.
The Democratic chief justice said she's opposed to raising court fees to generate money for the court system because they are high enough already. She did encourage the Legislature to pass legislation allowing furloughs rather than layoffs. She said the use of furloughs could prevent 177 of the layoffs anticipated on Oct. 1.
She also joined several health groups and state Health Officer Don Williamson in endorsing legislation by Democratic Rep. Patricia Todd of Birmingham that would add $1 a pack to Alabama's cigarette tax of 42 cents per pack. That would produce an estimated $205 million per year, with about $9 million going to the courts.
Todd's bill would make Alabama's cigarette tax higher than any neighboring state. Florida is at $1.34, Mississippi at 68 cents, Tennessee at 62 cents, and Georgia at 37 cents.
Alabama's cigarette tax was last raised in 2004. The tax produced $131 million last year, according to the Legislative Fiscal Office.
Todd said her bill would be a win-win proposal for the state because it would generate badly needed tax revenue and because studies have shown higher tobacco taxes reduce consumption. In addition to helping the courts, Todd's bill would generate money for Medicaid, children's programs, cancer centers, and stop smoking programs.
Williamson said about 20 percent of Alabama adults smoke.