An additional eight circuit court and five district court judges are needed in various parts of Alabama, including Madison and Baldwin counties, according to a recent report.
That same report also says Jefferson County has more judges than caseloads there require.
But reallocating judgeships has become a politically complicated issue in recent years. Fiscal conservatives in the State House have balked at spending millions on additional seats when Jefferson County and other districts have a surplus. Jefferson County’s well-muscled delegation has protected its judicial seats.
But now, more lawmakers, including the new chairman of the House General Fund budget committee, appear willing to spend on at least a few new seats.
“I’m certainly open to having that conversation,” Rep. Rex Reynolds, R-Huntsville, told Alabama Daily News this week. Reynolds is the former police chief in Huntsville.
“We’ve got a backlog of cases (in Madison County),” he said. “The last time I was briefed, it was over 12 months. That’s not right for public safety.
“To have an additional courtroom, that would make a huge difference in the flow of cases.”
In 2017, the Legislature established a Judicial Resource Allocation Commission, chaired by the Alabama chief justice, to identify areas of the state where judges are needed and where there are more than needed for the caseloads. It reports its findings each year to lawmakers.
According to a letter from Chief Justice Tom Parker earlier this month, the eight circuit court judges are needed, in order of priority, in:
- The 19th Circuit, Autauga, Elmore and Chilton counties: 2
- The 28th Circuit, Baldwin County: 2
- The 11th Circuit, Lauderdale County: 1
- The 23rd Circuit, Madison County: 1
- The 6th Circuit, Tuscaloosa County: 1
- The 37th Circuit, Lee County: 1
The five district court judges are needed in Baldwin, Mobile, DeKalb, Shelby and Madison counties, per Parker’s letter.
According to the commission’s formula, the 19th Circuit covering Autauga, Elmore and Chilton counties has a deficit of 2.3 judges, the highest need in the state. Meanwhile, Jefferson County has 26, a surplus of 12.2 circuit judges.
For district court judges, the Jefferson-Birmingham district has the highest surplus at 2.49. Meanwhile, Baldwin County needs almost four judges, but has two.
The 2017 law also says that when a sitting judge retires or dies, the commission “shall have 30 days to determine whether to reallocate such judgeship to another district or circuit.”
So far, that has only happened once. Last year, a circuit judgeship was moved from Jefferson County to Madison County, despite objections from Jefferson County lawmakers. Meanwhile, only one judgeship can be reallocated from any judicial circuit in a two-year period. So even though three other circuit judges in Jefferson County recently retired, those seats aren’t now eligible for reallocation.
“We’re fortunate that we did get one (circuit judge spot), but now nothing else can be done for another 1.5 years,” said Sen. Sam Givhan, R-Huntsville. “And one judgeship every two years just isn’t going to cut it.”
Givhan last year proposed two bills on judicial reallocation that did not advance far.
Now, he’s in discussions with colleagues about a proposal to fund two circuit judgeships in the Madison County and the Autauga, Elmore and Chilton circuits and one district post in Baldwin County.
He said his legislation won’t impact Jefferson County. He also said he knows its a Band-Aid approach.
“We need to be looking at a long-term approach,” Givhan said.
Sen. Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville, said he plans to advocate for more judges for his Senate district. According to the commission’s latest report, the circuit needs at least five judges. It has three.
“I’ll be doing all I can to try to get to four this session and then try for a fifth in upcoming sessions,” Chambliss said.
Some of his colleagues aren’t convinced. Previously, Sen. Arthur Orr, who sponsored the 2017 reallocation commission legislation, and Sen. Greg Albritton, the Senate General Fund chair, have said they don’t want to spend additional money when state-funded seats are being underused.
Albritton this week told Alabama Daily News his position hasn’t changed. But, the state’s decades-old judicial system structure could use a “holistic” review.
Meanwhile, taking any seats from Jefferson County now would require overcoming its delegations.
“We don’t have the political will to defeat a filibuster,” he said. “And if you’re going to have that fight, why not do something truly worthwhile.”
Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, has said he doesn’t think the formula used to measure caseloads and judicial need is accurate and he doesn’t believe Jefferson County has more judges than needed. He’ll continue to oppose efforts to take judicial posts from his home county. He instead said lawmakers should find the money to fund the needed seats. According to Parker’s letter, eight circuit and five district spots would cost a combined $5.35 million.
Smitherman this week pointed out that the state’s General Fund budget next year is expected to have a surplus of about $351 million.
“The argument against new judges has always been, we can’t find the money,” Smitherman said. “I found the money.”
He also said the new seats should not be “piecemealed.”
“If we’re going to make an effort to fix the problem, let’s fix the whole problem,” Smitherman said.
The 13 total new positions are less than the 12 circuit judgeships and 8 district judgeships the commission said was needed in its 2022 report. Parker attributed that to a decrease in caseloads. He said that’s been a national trend since 2019.
“Since FY2019, statewide circuit criminal counts have decreased 9%,” Parker wrote. “Circuit civil cases have decreased by 33%. District civil and small claims cases have decreased by 22%. While the actions of the Alabama government officials diminished the impact of COVID precautions on the Alabama Judiciary in comparison to other states, we are still experiencing some lagging effect from the pandemic.”