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Judgeships Ignite Controversy

Brandon Moseley

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By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

The State of Alabama has a General Fund that is and has been challenging for several years now. Legislators are reluctant to pass new revenues and be accused of raising people’s taxes or of sponsoring a bill to expand gambling in the State of Alabama. Similarly they have not (to this point anyway) been bold enough to come forward with a plan that addresses the real problem in the General Fund: that Alabama Medicaid benefits are growing faster than state revenues or the economy as a whole. While Medicaid is eating a larger and larger piece of the General Fund budget the State has asked the other State agencies in the General Fund to deal with tightening budget requests. The legislature also ignored a previous call by Governor Robert Bentley to merge the General Fund with the bigger and healthier State education trust fund.

Instead of any bold action to address the Medicaid problem, find new revenues, permanently eliminate whole State agencies, or reform the budgets the legislature has puttered along for years diverting money, raiding the Alabama Trust Fund, taking Obama stimulus dollars whenever available, using road and education dollars for General Fund needs, raiding the reserves, and budget cuts or proration when nothing else would work. Nowhere has this been felt harder than in the State’s court system.

On Wednesday, April 7, Sen. Bill Hightower (R-Mobile) went to the Senate Finance & Taxation General Fund Committee with a bill, SB297, asking the legislature to create a new circuit judge position in Mobile County.  The Alabama Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) have identified Mobile County as the place where the caseload is the greatest and where another judge is most needed. Sen. Hightower said that his bill was conditional to funds becoming available to fund the new court. The Committee voted to table Sen. Hightower’s bill, effectively killing the Mobile legislation for this fiscal year, unless the committee changes its mind.

Two and a half hours later the Senate Judiciary Committee met to consider a bill sponsored by Senator Greg Albritton (R-Bay Minette) that SB223 would establish a new circuit judgeship in Baldwin County in the 2016 fiscal year.

Sen. Albritton said that for the first 24 months the Baldwin County Commission has agreed to pay for the position out of their own funds. The State would not take over the budget responsibility until the 2018 fiscal year.

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Senate Judiciary Chairman Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) said, “I know Baldwin County needs a new circuit judge, but we had this conversation with Mobile County today. That bill was carried over.”

Sen. Albritton said that we have a letter from the AOC stating there is a need for a new circuit judgeship in Baldwin County.

Chairman Ward said that he is not sure that the court system can absorb that cost. Mobile County is the greatest need, followed by Madison County, then Baldwin County, then Shelby County.  “Baldwin is number three.”

Sen. Tom Whatley (R-Lee County) told Albritton, “I am going to support your bill and I hope you support my bill to get one for Lee County.”

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Chairman Ward said, “Y’all know what the general fund looks like.”  A reallocation bill may help in the long run. Shelby County needs a judge too.

Senator Phil Williams (R-Rainbow City) suggested that he would support it if Baldwin County would agree to fund their new judgeship in perpetuity.  “Baldwin County with all the industry that has come in there has the wherewithal to do that.

Baldwin County Judge J Langford “Lang” Floyd suggested to the committee that perhaps Baldwin County could fund the additional judge until the start of the 2019 fiscal year, by then the AOC could be fully funded.

Chairman Ward said, “I would be shocked if the AOC has that money by 2019.”

Judge Floyd said that the starting salary of a new judge is $119,000.

Sen. Ward said that it is not the pay that is the problem but all the peripheral costs: ballif, clerk, etc.

Judge Floyd suggested that Baldwin County could certainly looking at funding some of those additional costs.  “I have been on the bench for 18 years and I have never been involved in asking for a new judgeship before.” When I started practicing law in 1984 we had two circuit judges. We are up to five now; but we are so overloaded that one of our two district judges is doing up to 70 percent of her caseload in circuit court.  Baldwin County is willing to work with you.

Senator Vivian Figures (D-Mobile) told Judge Floyd, “I feel your pain.”  Mobile County is the number one need in the State. Mobile is first. Madison Second, THEN Baldwin.  “Until we get new revenue we keep kicking the can down the road. I will not consider the thought of voting for this if it is eventually paid for by the State.

Sen. Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) made a motion to carry over Sen. Albritton’s bill. Sen. Figures seconded. The motion carried with only Sens. Whatley and Albritton opposing.

Next the Committee considered Sen. Arthur Orr’s reallocation bill, SB230.  Sen. Orr said, “As judges retire in areas that have not grown in population or have actually declined that judgeship would be reallocated. This will take a long time.

Sen. Phil Williams said that Etowah County also needs a new circuit judge. This bill would create the Alabama Reallocation Commission to decide where new judges go. “I recognize that while I am not 1 2 3 or 4. We do have a process in place.”

Chairman Ward said, “You are going to have four counties that are going to desperately need those circuit judges and there are four counties where they don’t need those circuit court judges. Mobile, Madison, Baldwin, and Shelby County will eventually receive new judges.  Montgomery and Jefferson Counties will see the impact as retirements come.

Ward said he is not for redrawing the judicial district lines. 

Sen. Linda Coleman (D-Birmingham) said that while Jefferson County judges have a lighter case load they have higher crime rates.

Sen. Ward said there is a large number of people who have moved out of Jefferson County. Their caseload has dropped. The courts in St. Clair, Shelby, and Blount are overwhelmed.

Sen. Coleman said, “We have more capital crimes.  They don’t have that out there.”  Jefferson County has a higher incidence of those types of crime. Those cases take more time.

Sen. Ward said there is a reason why Mobile County is #1. The population has gone up. Their caseload is higher.

Sen. Figures said, “There is no mention of diversity.” Figures introduced an amendment to include diversity language: “All appointing authorities should coordinate their appointments so that they reflect the diversity of the state including race, gender, urban, and rural.”

The committee voted to add Figures amendment.

The committee also added a Sen. Williams technical amendment to change some wording in Orr’s bill.

 

Brandon Moseley is a senior reporter with eight and a half years at Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Facebook. Brandon is a native of Moody, Alabama, a graduate of Auburn University, and a seventh generation Alabamian.

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Governor declares state of emergency ahead of Tropical Storm Zeta

Zeta is currently a tropical storm over the Gulf of Mexico, but it is predicted to make landfall as a category one hurricane.

Brandon Moseley

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A satellite image of Tropical Storm Zeta. (VIA NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE)

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey on Tuesday issued a state of emergency as Tropical Storm Zeta approaches the Gulf Coast.

“Ahead of Tropical Storm Zeta’s anticipated landfall Wednesday evening as a Category 1 hurricane, I am issuing a state of emergency effective today at 4:00 p.m.,” Ivey said. “While this storm is not expected to have an impact as large as storms we’ve seen move through the Gulf earlier this year, we want to be in the best place possible to respond to anticipated rain, storm surge and mass power outage. I encourage everyone to remain weather aware and tuned in to their trusted news source as this storm could shift direction or change intensity. We continue to track the path of this storm and will stay in touch with the people of Alabama with any updates.”

Zeta is currently a tropical storm over the Gulf of Mexico, but it is predicted to make landfall as a category one hurricane. The National Hurricane Center is predicting Zeta to make landfall in Mississippi on Wednesday and then proceed toward Alabama, but these storms can and do move.

A more easterly track could prove devastating to the Alabama Gulf Coast as was the case with Hurricane Sally, which shifted course in September, hitting Alabama, though Zeta is expected to be weaker than Sally at landfall.

The storm surge from the Mississippi-Alabama border to Dauphin Island is forecast to be 5 to 8 feet. Mobile Bay to the Alabama-Florida border is expected to have 3 to 5 feet of storm surge and from the border to Navarre, Florida, could experience 2 to 4 feet of storm surge.

Hurricane force winds are a possibility with this storm. Tropical force winds are expected to be an issue for Southern Mississippi and Alabama well inland. There is expected to be heavy rainfall across the state Wednesday night into Thursday morning.

The Baldwin County Emergency Management Agency announced that sandbags are available inside the county commission office at Robertsdale Central Annex (22251 Palmer Street) until 4:30 p.m. Tuesday and from 8 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. Wednesday or while they last.

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Bring any help and shovels you will need. There is a limit of just 25 bags per person. Alabama’s coastal counties are currently under a Tropical Storm Warning, a Storm Surge Warning for Mobile County and a High Rip Current and High Surf Warning.

Congressman Bradley Byrne said, “I just finished up briefings from Alabama EMA, FEMA, and the National Hurricane Center regarding #Zeta. We should not take this storm lightly and should start making preparations right away. After sundown Wednesday, I’d encourage everyone in Southwest Alabama to stay home and off the roads until sunrise Thursday. This storm will have impacts as far north as Montgomery, so those in Washington, Clarke, and Monroe counties will see tropical storm force winds and heavy rain. I’d encourage everyone to charge their phones and other necessary electronics. If you have an emergency during the storm, call 911 and do not try to drive.”

Coastal Alabama is still in the process of recovering from Hurricane Sally which hit the state on Sept. 15.

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Health

Alabama’s COVID-19 hospitalizations surpass 1,000 for first time since August

The 1,001 patients in hospitals with COVID-19 on Tuesday is a 34 percent increase from a month ago.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(APR GRAPHIC/ADPH DATA)

Hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients in Alabama on Monday crossed the 1,000 mark for the first time since Aug. 31 — a sign that Alabama may be headed for another peak in hospitalizations as the state prepares for winter and flu season.

The 1,001 patients in hospitals with COVID-19 on Tuesday is a 34 percent increase from a month ago, and the seven-day average of COVID-19 hospitalizations by day Tuesday was 917, a 21 percent increase from Sept. 27.

“Unfortunately, not surprised but frankly, depressed by our trends,” said Dr. Don Williamson, president of the Alabama Hospital Association and Alabama’s former state health officer, speaking to APR on Tuesday. 

Work is under way to help hospitals prepare for another surge, ensuring there’s enough of therapies like Remdesivir, ventilators and personal protective equipment are in place, Williamson said. 

Alabama on Monday had just 16 percent of the state’s ICU beds available, and since the start of the pandemic, with a few exceptions, Alabama hospitals have had less than 20 percent ICU availability, Williamson said. During the state’s last peak in mid-July, coronavirus patients were using 445 ICU beds, he said, and by Sept, 20 that had dropped to 274, where it hovered ever since.

On Monday, 292 COVID-19 patients were in ICUs, Williamson said.

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Williamson said at the state’s worst point during July, Alabama had just 109 ICU beds available but that “the problem wasn’t beds. It was staff.” Without staff to care for the patients, empty ICU beds would do a patient no good. 

A nurse can typically care for up to six patients, but only three or four COVID-19 patients, who require extra care, Williamson said. And there’s concern that fatigue among hospital staff will again become a challenge. 

“You’re seeing it nationally now, in folks who are going through this second wave. Staff are just exhausted because they’ve seen it before. They know how somehow this is going to turn out for a significant number of patients,” Williamson said.  “And part of it is just the incredible frustration that a lot of this was preventable. 

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As treatment options and the knowledge of how to better care for COVID-19 patients have improved, fewer coronavirus patients are taking up those ICU beds, but they’ve been replaced with people who come to hospitals sicker than before the pandemic.

Williamson said many of them may have put off going to the hospital during the state’s surge, and as a result, find themselves sicker than they would have otherwise been. 

Alabama’s hospitalizations began dropping in the weeks after Gov. Kay Ivey issued a statewide mask order in July, which she has extended twice, but after dipping down as low 703 on Sept. 25, hospitalizations have been rising. 

Williamson said looking at the rate of increase in recent weeks, he predicts the state could again see daily hospitalizations of 1,500 as in July, and said while current hospitalizations for seasonal flu patients are in the single digits, there’s concern that as flu season continues the combination of flu and COVID-19 patients will strain hospital staffing resources and bed space statewide. 

Williamson said from personal observation he is seeing more people not wearing masks, or wearing them improperly, and said the state could dramatically reduce the risk of COVID-19 if the public regularly wore masks and wore them properly.

“The period between Thanksgiving and the first of the year could be really, really problematic, given what we’re now seeing with COVID,” Williamson said. 

Alabama added 1,115 new confirmed and probable coronavirus cases on Tuesday, and the 14-day average of new daily cases hit 1,375. Over the last two weeks, the state added 19,244 cases, although 3,747 were older test results from labs that weren’t properly reporting to the Alabama Department of Public Health.

Alabama’s 14-day positivity rate is at nearly 21 percent, although those older test results skewed the figure higher than it otherwise would have been. Just prior to those older cases being added to the count, however, Alabama’s 14-day average of percent positivity was 15 percent. Public health experts say it needs to be at or below 5 percent of cases are going undetected. 

ADPH reported 26 COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday. Over the last four weeks, ADPH added 391 coronavirus deaths to the state’s total, which stood at 2,892 on Tuesday.

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News

Agriculture Department providing shelters for livestock evacuating due to Zeta

The Alabama A&M Agribition Center will open effective immediately for livestock that is being evacuated.

Brandon Moseley

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(STOCK PHOTO)

In response to Tropical Storm Zeta, the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries has been in contact with partners to provide a temporary sheltering facility for evacuated livestock including horses and cattle.

Animals moving in response to Tropical Storm Zeta will be exempt from a certificate of veterinary inspection.

The Alabama A&M Agribition Center (4925 Moore’s Mill Rd, Huntsville, AL 35811) will open effective immediately for livestock that is being evacuated. The shelter is only equipped to shelter livestock, not pets or companion animals such as dogs or cats.

This facility will be available on a first-come, first-serve basis. To contact the A&M Agribition Center call 256-689-0274. Evacuees will need to bring their own shavings, water buckets, feed, etc.

When evacuating, it is important for livestock owners to be prepared to care for their animals while they are away. Please be sure to bring the following items with you: a current list of all animals, including their records of feeding, vaccinations and tests.

Make sure that you have proof of ownership for all animals. Supplies for temporary identification of your animals, such as plastic neckbands and permanent markers to label your animals with your name, address and telephone number. Handling equipment such as halters and appropriate tools for each kind of animal. Water, feed and buckets as well as tools and supplies needed for sanitation.

For questions or concerns about sheltering livestock during a tropical storm evacuation, please contact ADAI Emergency Programs at 334-240-7279 or by email. The Alabama Cooperative Extension Service has also prepared an article on how to prepare to evacuate a farm.

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There are more than 1.3 million head of cattle and calves on Alabama farms, according to figures released by the Alabama Agriculture Statistics Service. The cattle herd represents an enormous investment for Alabama farm families and is valued at approximately $2.4 billion.

Alabama has nearly 100,000 horses with a total value of over $500 million. Alabama has 57,000 hogs with annual production of $21.4 million a year. Alabama has more than 40,000 sheep and goats.

Farms in Mobile, Baldwin and Escambia counties were hit hard by Hurricane Sally and repairs to barns and fences from that storm are still ongoing.

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Corruption

Prosecution accepts misdemeanor plea in high-profile environmental administrator’s case 

The plea deal came shortly before Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Stephen C. Wallace was to hear arguments on selective and vindictive prosecution.

Bill Britt

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Almost two years ago, Trump administration EPA Region 4 Administrator Onis “Trey” Glenn III was charged with more than a dozen state felony ethics violations. On Monday, he pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor charges after reaching a plea agreement with the prosecution.

The plea deal came shortly before Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Stephen C. Wallace was to hear arguments on selective and vindictive prosecution.

According to a statement from the Ethics Commission at the time, Glenn, along with former Alabama Environmental Management Commissioner Scott Phillips, was charged after a Jefferson County grand jury returned indictments against the two on Nov. 9, 2018, according to a statement from the Ethics Commission.

Rather than moving forward with the case, prosecutors dropped the felony charges against Glenn. They opted to reach an agreement to accept a plea on three counts of “unintentional” violations of the ethics code. Glenn received a two-year suspended sentence for his actions.

“In the interest of efficiency, we were pleased to take advantage of the opportunity to resolve this matter,” Glenn’s attorney Matt Hart told APR when reached for comment. “My client pleaded to unintentional, misdemeanor violations of the ethics law, and the matter is concluded.”

Questions surround the prosecution’s decision to settle the case for a confession to minor offensives in such a high profile case. Still, from the beginning, the case was marred by allegations that the Alabama Ethics Commission’s lawyers had mishandled the investigation and indictments.

Indictments against Glenn and Phillips were reported by AL.com even before the pair was arrested or served with the indictments. In AL.com’s report, Ethics Commission Executive Director Tom Albritton said that then-Jefferson County District Attorney Mike Anderton had requested the Ethics Commission help indict the two men.

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As first reported by APR, shortly after Glenn and Phillips’ indictments, Albritton and his team’s actions raised serious questions about the process that led to charges against the two men. APR reported that Albritton and Ethics Commission lawyer Cynthia Propst Raulston approached Anderton, and he did not request help with the case from the commission, as was reported in AL.com.

Later, APR confirmed that the Ethics Commission approached Anderton, contradicting Albritton’s public statement. In a sworn statement given on Feb. 9, 2019, Anderton said it was Ethics Commission lawyers who approached him, as first reported by APR in November of last year.

According to Anderton, in the fall of 2018, Propst Raulston approached him because “she had a case she wanted to present to the Jefferson County Grand Jury.”

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He further states, “I told Ms. Raulston that I would facilitate her appearance before the grand jury but that my office did not have the resources to support her case. I also told her that she would have to prosecute the case herself.”

These and other aberrations came into sharper focus when Hart — the state’s most famous prosecutor of his generation turned defense attorney — began diving into the particulars of the prosecution’s case.

Glenn’s defense argued from the start that procedural process was circumvented when Albritton and Propst Raulston took the complaint directly to a grand jury rather than the Ethics Commission as prescribed by the Legislature.

An ethics commissioner told APR privately that the commission was never informed about a complaint against the two men, nor was the investigation.

According to internal sources, actions taken by Albritton and Propst Raulston created turmoil at the commission and raised a question about who would prosecute the case on the state’s behalf.

During the process, Albritton, Propst Raulston, and other attorneys for the commission asked the attorney general’s office to take over the case; however, according to sources within the office, the AG turned them down after a review found “statutory problems” with how the case against Glenn and Phillips was handled.

In a motion to dismiss, the defense said, “In sum, the Ethics Commission Staff trampled Mr. Glenn’s rights in obtaining the indictment without giving him his required notice and an opportunity to be heard as required by the Alabama Ethics Act, and then after indictment denied him notice as guaranteed by the Grand Jury Secrecy Act and failed to protect his presumption of innocence as required by the Rules of Professional Conduct.”

While not explicitly noted in the motion to dismiss, the relationship between environmental group GASP and the prosecution was a subject that would have been heard in the hearing on selective and vindictive prosecution.

Immediately following Glenn and Phillips’ indictment, GASP posted a celebratory tweet, even taking credit for the indictment.

Former GASP director Stacie Propst is the sister of Ethics Commission lawyer Propst Raulston who presented the case to the Jefferson County grand jury.

While many in the environmental community celebrated Glenn’s indictment, the defense argued the prosecution took an illegal short cut to indict him, which denied Glenn due process and amounted to selective and vindictive prosecution.

Monday’s plea agreement ended the two-year drama without further exposure as to what happened behind the scene. Phillips’s case is still pending.

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