By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY — A State authority may begin shuffling circuit and district judgeships soon following a vote by the House of Representatives Tuesday.
A bill that would authorize a new commission to reallocate circuit and district judgeships based on need, which legislators hope will alleviate caseload pressure on some circuit and district courts, passed the House Tuesday and will now head to the Governor for approval.
The House approved the bill by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, 77-15 after several hours of debate. The bill would give a newly established Judicial Resource Allocation Commission the authority to realign distribution of circuit and district judgeships.
If the bill is signed by the Governor, the Commission will meet annually to review the need for increasing or decreasing the judgeships in every district court and circuit court based on caseload, population and special duties.
The Commission will be able to move judgeships from a circuit or district with a light load to circuits and districts with heavy caseloads and large population increases that demonstrate need.
“Presently, there is a need for sixteen additional judgeships, which would cost the state between $6 and $8 million to establish,” Orr said. “Gradually shifting judgeships, as vacancies occur, from counties with low caseloads to locations with higher numbers of cases will both improve our judicial system and save taxpayer dollars.”
When a vacancy occurs because of death, retirement, resignation or removal, the Commission can redistribute judgeships based on those criteria. The Commission can also reallocate judgeships if a judge cannot seek re-election because of his age.
No sitting judge can be affected by the law as written, and any reallocation would require a two-thirds vote of the Commission.
Several counties are currently in need of new judges, but the State can’t establish new judgeships because of budget constraints in the General Fund. Baldwin, Mobile, Madison, Etowah, Dekalb and Tuscaloosa are among the counties in need of new judges.
“We’re not in a position right now to do very much creating, so we need to look at reallocating the judgeships that we have,” Hill said. “We need to look and see where they are most needed in this State.”
Some legislators were concerned that taking a judgeship from one circuit or county and moving it to another could hurt the county that had their judge taken away.
“I think what this bill is going to do is wreak havoc in some areas while trying to solve a problem in other areas,” said Rep. Mary Moore, D-Birmingham. “In some areas, they don’t have judges right now. I would have thought that rather than bringing a bill like this, we would start to come up with some way to pay to create new judges.”
Moore said she recognized that there is a need for new judges but reallocation is not the way to solve the problem. She was also concerned that some high-population counties would be targeted, such as Jefferson, Montgomery, Madison and Mobile Counties.
“It’s like if your left hand doesn’t work, we’ll have to reallocate that left hand to somebody else, let it work for somebody else,” Moore said. “Then the right hand is left with trying to accomplish the same goal that two hands would have done successfully.”
In November, voters in Jefferson County elected 9 new African-American women as circuit and district court judges. Rep. Jaundalynn Givan, D-Birmingham, said she was concerned that the commission — which may have no representation from Jefferson County — may decide to take away judges from her district.
House Assistant Minority Leader Merika Coleman, D-Birmingham, echoed her concerns.
“I had a real issue with reallocation efforts in previous years,” Coleman said. “I’m wondering why we are not trying to come up with a funding mechanism to make sure that every county has the number that it needs in order to take care of the case loads that each one of them have, instead of moving one of them here to there.”
Like any fix for recent problems in Alabama, from Medicaid budgeting to prison construction, this bill doesn’t fix all of the problems. No matter where judges are reallocated, there will still be a need for more new judgeships.
“This legislature can create a judgeship anytime they want to,” Hill said.
But establishing an individual judgeship, Hill said, would cost between $400-500,000. Unless the Legislature is willing to spend more money, then they have to be willing to reallocate, he said.
The Commission would have 12 members: The Chief Justice, a legal adviser to the Governor, the Attorney General, three circuit judges, three district judges and three attorneys appointed by the State Bar and the Alabama Lawyer’s Association.
The bill now heads to the Governor’s desk for approval.