Ala. court system braces for more "substantial" layoffs

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - The familiar statue seen outside many courthouses, symbolically blindfolded and carrying a scale of equality, serves as a reminder to all who pass before her that they're promised equal justice under the law. The blindfold over Lady Justice's eyes isn't covering up a massive budget shortfall, however, that's threatening more jobs and speedy justice.

Alabama Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb warned Tuesday that more, "substantial" layoffs can be expected in the coming days as a result of the ongoing budget crisis within Alabama.

Cobb said the State General Fund adopted by the House of Representatives will force her to cut an additional 254 court employees and 25 Administrative Offices of Courts employees. Those cuts would have to come by October 1. Justice Cobb has already trimmed the judicial branch by 270 employees over the last two years because of budget constraints.

The budget appropriates $138.9 million for the court system, a $13 million drop from the current fiscal year. Cobb says that will equal a reduction of 35 percent in each circuit clerk's office around the state.

That's bad new for large court systems, but potentially crippling for smaller ones.

"In some of our more rural counties, circuit clerk's offices will be reduced to two employees," said Cobb.  "Heaven forbid the two employees become sick at the same time, but that is a real possibility we face."

Cobb told The Associated Press she is hoping to receive a $10 million supplemental appropriation to help the courts get through the remainder of the current year, but doesn't see that as a likely option because the money is needed to help with recovery from last month's violent tornadoes that killed more than 200.

Cobb said she doesn't envy the legislature's responsibility to balance the budget, but "the funding for the Courts in the proposed budget is neither adequate nor reasonable for the Courts to be open to provide a remedy by due process of law to every person for any injury as required by our state's constitution."

Lady Justice's blindfold may still be firmly tied around her head, but budget cuts could force her into symbolism of another kind. She may have to take off her gloves.

Copyright 2011 WSFA 12 News. All rights reserved. The Associate Press contributed to this report.