By BOB MARTIN
State Chief Justice Roy Moore is right to sound the alarm. But some state court officials believe he should have sounded it much sooner.
Moore issued an order in early March directing circuit court clerk offices in Alabama to be closed to the public on Wednesdays beginning March 20. Moore said in his order that state funding for courts was cut $25 million for fiscal 2013 and appears to be about $13 million short for the current year and beyond.
The chief justice, who was elected last November, also said in the order that the expected appropriation for the court system for fiscal 2014 would be $16.5 million less than needed.
Moore noted that Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb had been forced to issue a similar order closing circuit clerk offices in response to a significant but less dire under-funding during her administration.
Moore told members of the Montgomery Rotary Club recently that the court system has $38 million less now than when he took office for the first time in 2001. He said there are 498 fewer court employees now than in 2001, and proposals before the Legislature could cost another 300 jobs. He said if the cuts continue, the system eventually will reach a breaking point.
“There comes a time when you can’t keep the power on,” the chief justice said.
Moore recently ordered court clerks’ offices throughout the state closed on Wednesdays. He said the offices will still be staffed on Wednesdays but closing the doors to the public will allow staff to tend to filing court papers and other duties.
Moore said he believes extra money could be found by prioritizing spending. Some have suggested increasing taxes or expanding gambling as ways to raise money for the courts. The chief justice said he opposes those ideas.
Moore said he doesn’t believe raising taxes would solve the problem, and he’s opposed to using gambling as a way to raise money.
So where does our esteemed chief justice hope to get money to keep justice rolling in the state…call the Tooth Fairy? And, by the way, it needs to keep running along with all the ancillary things like police departments, jails, probation and parole, district attorneys, public defenders and clerks.
It’s a very simply solution, Mr. Chief Justice, and you know how it can be done; it will just take a lot of gumption to pull the trigger.
I presume you have read our state constitution Mr. Chief Justice, and you know what Section 6.10 of Amendment No. 328 says. The exact language is this:
“Adequate and reasonable financing for the entire unified judicial system shall be provided. Adequate and reasonable appropriations shall be made by the legislature for the entire unified judicial system, exclusive of probate courts and municipal courts. The legislature shall receive recommendations for appropriations for the trial courts from the administrative director of courts and for the appellate courts from each such court.”
You see, back when the late Chief Justice Howell Heflin sat in your chair and State Senator and later Chief Justice C. C. Bo Torbert along with many others were helping get judicial reform passed in Alabama, they knew there would be times like you face. They knew that the courts are the least appreciated branch of our government and would likely end up on the bottom of the budgetary list when real bad times hit.
So they proposed the language above and the people overwhelmingly agreed in December of 1973. So don’t put this off on the legislature or the governor. You and the other justices on the Supreme Court hold your own key. I’m sure some enterprising lawyer who wants justice for a client will quickly litigate on behalf of the justice system. The entire State Bar should, but I doubt if they have the fortitude.
Then if the courts find the court budget inadequate to keep criminals in jail and folks safe on the streets, you and your fellow judges make the decision and order a remedy that will allow justice to survive in Alabama. I’m willing to wager a Coke, Mr. Chief Justice, or even lunch at Down The Street Cafe, that you will come out on top. No, I can’t do that so I’ll just buy your lunch if you and your colleagues have the guts to take such action.
Bob Martin is editor and publisher of The Montgomery Independent. He is a former court administrator for the Alabama Judicial System. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Views expressed by Mr. Martin are not necessarily those of the staff of Atmore News.