By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY—Chief Justice Roy Moore says a lot has changed at the Alabama court system since he first took office as Chief Justice in 2001.
According to Justice Moore, the courts were underfunded then but they are funded 38 million less today. ”Anyone who has used the county courthouse in the last few years as seen a dramatic loss of services. Skeleton staffs, half empty clerks offices all due to budget cuts. One of the principle jobs of the Chief Justice is to ensure that all the courts throughout the state are operationally funded. Justice Moore is finding that this is a challenge. One of the big question on the Chief’s mind is, why have the court been suffering severe budget cuts while “the other branches have increased their budgets?”
According to the Chief the courts have lost more funding proportionately than the executive or the legislative branches. “The executive branch has grown by 48 percent while the courts have lost 28 percent,” Moore said.
Last session, the State Legislature passed a bill that raised court fees and cost, yet this tax increase has not had the monetary effect that lawmakers had predicted.
Some $25 million in funding was taken from the Unified Justice System for fiscal year 2013. It had been projected that Judicial Administration Fund with the new fees and cost would produce the needed $25 million outset the cuts. However, it appears the fund will fall short of projections by $13 million.
Judge Moore says that, “If we don’t get the funding we need, we will have to cut more services.” The system is now functioning with historically low staffing numbers. Without proper funding it is estimated that 366 jobs will be lost out of 1,807 currently employed.
This would represent an additional 20 percent cut over the already understaffed courthouses.
Two years ago the Judicial branch was receiving 11.32 percent of the General Fund Budget, for 2013 it received just 5.91 percent and in 2014 it is projected to receive a further cut to 5.8 percent.
“Regarding civil government and society, we can operate without many executive branch services of today; however, society cannot survive without the courts,” was a statement from the Chief Justice’s Office.
“Cutting jobs, depleting the workforce of the court is a blow to the justice system and the people of the State,” said Moore.
If the courts are not sufficiently funded, the Chief’s office projects that more offices will close for more hours and weeks. There will be further delays in court action, which will result in criminals left on street awaiting trial and more crime. Alabama’s already overcrowded jails will increase in population which will mean more cost to operate the correctional system.
“People should be alarmed when the basic institutions are being undermined,” said Justice Moore. The Chief believes that the underlying cause of the problem is political.
“Over 80 percent of the money [collected in taxes] goes into the ETF [Education Trust Fund],” said Moore. “Running a government on 20 percent or less doesn’t make sense.”
Moore says, while education is important, that police protection, the prosecution of criminal and the courts are instrumental to a healthy and free society.
“Education is important but does it takes over 80 percent of our entire funding and now more when the state keeps creating more programs,” said Moore.
He further states, “The only answer is politics and that is not a good answer to anything.”
Moore says he thinks that many of the state budget woes could begin to be better addressed if the state would combine the ETF and the General Fund budgets. Something that has been proposed many times but so far no one has had the political courage to actually try.
The Chief Justice is not a man anyone could accuse of not having the courage of his convictions.
Moore said that last week he met with the Governor as well as the President Pro Temp, the Speaker and members of the budget committee. He says that he believes they are wanting to be helpful.
No one should doubt that Chief Justice Moore is a force unlike any Justice before him. He is not one to wait idly by. He moves things in the direction he believes they should go.