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Senate delays vote on bill that would reallocate judges

Brandon Moseley

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The Alabama Senate delayed a vote on a bill Tuesday that would reallocate judges from areas in decline to areas of the state that are experiencing growth.

Senate Bill 255 is sponsored by Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Atmore.

“Why is this needed? Some counties in South Alabama and North Alabama have grown rapidly,” and need judges, but the state does not have money to hire new judges, Albritton explained. In 2017 there was a deal made in the Legislature that as people retired the reallocation could be done gradually two years later, but what is happening is that people are running for the vacancies. This narrows the time frame to within 30 days of a vacancy.

“We need to reallocate,” Albritton said.

State Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, was angry that Jefferson County would lose judges under the plan. A couple of women get elected and you want to take them away,

“That is racism,” Smitherman said.

“We could use more judges in the state,” said Sen. Bobby Singleton, R-Greensboro. “We need to create a mental health court in this state. We need to create a court to deal with pretrial diversion.”

“With the large population of Jefferson County they need judges,” Singleton said. “Crime is rising. Each and every one of those judges are needed.”

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Albritton, Smitherman and Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, stepped off of the floor to negotiate a compromise.

While they talked, Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed, R-Jasper, and Singleton engaged in an hour-long discussion on judges, courts, new prisons, prison staffing, rehabilitation of prisoners, and even fishing for catfish in flooded ditches in Greene County.

Sen. Sam Givhan, R-Huntsville, said, “Madison County is growing rapidly. It has half the population of Jefferson County, but Jefferson County has 27 circuit judges; while Madison has just seven.”

Givhan claimed that Madison County needs three or four more judges.

“Montgomery is a smaller county than we are and they have two more judges than we have; though in their defense they get all the lawsuits against the state of Alabama,” Givhan said. “Senator Barfoot, Price, and I are in counties that need an additional judge.”

Givhan said that the Alabama Supreme Court is looking into the need to reallocate.

“Senator Barfoot and I have a friendly discussion on which county has the most need,” Givhan said. “We will never reach perfect, but we need to move towards a fair balance.”

Marsh returned to the floor and said, “we have had a very productive discussion.”

Albritton asked that SB255 be carried over at the call of the chair.

The Senate will resume on Thursday. Tuesday was the eleventh of a maximum thirty legislative days in the 2020 legislative session.

Today Alabama has 4.888 million people. In 1960 Alabama had 3.274 million people. Today Jefferson County has a population of 659,197 people. In 1960, Jefferson County had a population of 634,864. In 1960, 19.4 percent of the people in Alabama lived in Jefferson County. Today less than 13.5 percent of the state lives in Jefferson County, still the state’s largest county.

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Courts

Ward says new revenue is needed to reduce the court backlog

Brandon Moseley

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The Alabama Political Reporter on Thursday spoke with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, about how the state can address the backlog of judicial cases in the Alabama court system.

Ward said that the backlog for the courts is due to legislators being unwilling to find sufficient revenue for the state general fund.

Anybody familiar with the Alabama court system knows that criminal matters can take a long time to move through the court system and civil matters — whether a lawsuit or a contested divorce — can take considerable time due to the backlog of cases on many judicial dockets. There is a general consensus that more judges would alleviate this problem, but there is little consensus on where that money would come from.

APR asked Ward: How much does it cost to add a full-time judge (plus the cost of the courtroom, bailiff, clerk, reporter, etc.)?

“It varies but generally about $300,000 annually,” Ward replied. “That can vary though depending on the judge and jurisdiction.”

APR: There was legislation to allow more retired judges introduced during the session. How many do we have now and what can they do? Are they still subject to the 70 years mandatory retirement?

“Using retired judges would help some with the problem,” Ward replied. “I don’t exactly how many we have, but, if they consented, they could be brought back to help alleviate caseloads on a temporary basis. This would be cheaper than creating an entirely new judgeship; but some circuits do need new judgeships as their caseloads continue to grow.”

APR: Some district judges are empowered to hear circuit cases. How many of those do we have? Should we just give all district court judges circuit court powers?

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Ward: “Maybe. One problem you have is that the District Judges are overloaded too. It’s not that we are just short of Circuit Judges, both the Circuit and District courts are overwhelmed. Also, we elect Circuit Judges by circuits that can sometime cover multiple counties and District Judges are elected by one from every county so that creates a logistical issue.”

APR: Could we just hire 7 itinerant judges chosen by the Chief Justice and send them all over the state to help out where there was a need?

Ward: “The Chief Justice right now can shift some judges temporarily in between circuits. The problem with just hiring people to be judges is that then they are no longer accountable to the public because they are not elected. There has always been an ongoing debate in Alabama regarding whether we should elect judges or not; but that is probably for another story.”

APR: Has the COVID-19 crisis exposed flaws in our system of making court fees pay for the cost of DAs, courts, circuit clerks, etc.?

Ward: “Yes, because we pay a large part of courts, DAs, and courthouses through fees assessed and collected in the civil and criminal justice process. So, when the economy goes south and less people can pay the courts costs, fines, and fees the budgets of these agencies falls dramatically. It is a broken system for sure. The reason for it is because no one ever wants to raise taxes for the general fund to finance the court system so instead of adequately funding them out of the general fund, we continue to just fee our way into funding it. Typically, until someone needs their day in court, the public just doesn’t speak out on the need for more court funding despite the fact that they do.”

APR: Alabama already has 148 circuit court judges in 41 circuits and 98 district court judges in 67 districts. Do we need more circuits? Circuit court judges? Or district court judges?

Ward: “You need to do two things which have been tried, but never passed into law. First, you need to be able to reallocate judges as population trends change. Example- Jefferson County has shrunk in population in the last thirty years and Shelby County has grown dramatically, yet we keep the same number of judges in place for each county despite the change in workload. So, it’s not creating new circuits, it’s just reallocating the judges we have in a fashion that fits where the demand is. Second, you are going to need more judges in Alabama if you have to alleviate the current backlog in our court system. I don’t see any way around it; but I also don’t see anyone outside of the courts speaking out on the need for new revenue to pay for it.”

Ward represents Senate District 14, which includes parts of Shelby, Bibb, and Chilton Counties.

On Monday, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed the 2021 State General Fund budget, which begins on October 1.

The 2021 budget appropriated $176,094,674 to the judicial branch. The courts received a $3,056,383 increase over fiscal year 2020. The 2021 SGF is $2,393,272,863, not including conditional appropriations. This is a $170,926,954 increase over FY 2020. The court system receives 7.36 percent of the general fund. The state’s largest source of income, income taxes, are all earmarked for the education trust fund budget (ETF).

 

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Courts

Shelby: Senate confirms Birmingham’s Anna Manasco as U.S district judge

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U.S. Senator Richard Shelby, R-Ala., today announced that Anna Manasco of Birmingham, Alabama, has been confirmed 71-21 by the full Senate to be a U.S. District Judge for the Northern District of Alabama.  Manasco was nominated for the federal judgeship by President Trump in February.  Following her nomination, she appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee for consideration and was reported out of the committee with bipartisan support.

“Anna Manasco is immensely qualified to be a U.S. District Judge, and her confirmation by the Senate today is a victory for Alabama and the entire nation,” said Senator Shelby.  “Her extensive litigation experience, academic accomplishments, and strong commitment to upholding the rule of law as it is written make her the ideal candidate for this role.  I am confident she will serve honorably, exhibiting fairness and impartiality.”

Manasco is currently a partner at Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP in Birmingham, where her practice focuses on trial strategy and appeals in complex commercial litigation.  She earned her Bachelor of Arts, summa cum laude, from Emory University, her Master of Science and Doctorate of Philosophy from the University of Oxford, and her Juris Doctor from Yale Law School, where she served as executive editor of the Yale Law & Policy Review. Manasco has argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, numerous federal courts of appeals and the Supreme Court of the State of Alabama.  Before joining her current firm, Manasco served as a law clerk to Judge William H. Pryor, Jr. of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

Historic obstruction by Democrats has occurred during this Administration’s attempt to confirm judges.  The previous six presidents combined faced a total of 24 procedural votes on judicial nominees while President Trump faced more than 100 during his first two years in office.  However, in April 2019, the Senate voted to reduce post-cloture debate time from 30 hours to two hours for certain executive and federal judicial nominations, including district court appointments, preventing further delay on confirming hundreds of qualified nominees.

In addition to Manasco’s confirmation, the U.S. Senate has confirmed ten of Alabama’s federal judicial nominees since August 2017.

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Courts

ACLU requests list of people being held in Birmingham’s jail

Brandon Moseley

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The ACLU of Alabama filed a public records request Monday seeking a full roster of everyone who is being held in the Birmingham City Jail, the date of their booking, and the charge(s) for which they are being held.

The group claims that they made an attempt on Friday May 8, to get the information but were thwarted by staff at the Birmingham City Jail and Birmingham Police Department. The police were unwilling to release this information, even though the ACLU claims that it should be openly available to any citizen as a matter of public record.

“Citizens are entitled to know who is being held in taxpayer-funded jails and why, and that information has never been more critical than in the current COVID-19 pandemic,” said investigative reporter Beth Shelburne. “A jail roster, which is public information, should be readily available to anyone who asks for it. It should not require credentials or a formal open records request. If Birmingham police are unwilling to release the list of people inside the city jail, along with how long they have been there and why they are there, we have to wonder what they are trying to hide.”

Shelburne wrote in her letter, “Under the Alabama Open Records Law, Ala. Code § 36-12-40 to § 36-12-41, I am requesting the roster from the Birmingham City Jail to include all people in custody, date of booking, and charge(s) for which they are being held.”

“I would like to request a waiver of all fees in that the disclosure of the requested information is in the public interest,” Shelburne continued. “I currently work as a freelance journalist and I anticipate this information will be used in my reporting for The Campaign for Smart Justice with ACLU of Alabama. This information is not being sought for commercial purposes. The statute requires a response in a reasonable time period. If access to the records I am requesting will take longer than three business days, please contact me with information about when I might expect copies or the ability to inspect the requested records. If you deny any or all of this request, please cite each specific exemption you feel justifies the refusal to release the information and notify me of the appeal procedures available under the law.”

The ACLU of Alabama claims that Alabama jails and imprisons an excessive number of citizens.

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U.S. Attorney Jay E. Town recognizes Police Week

Brandon Moseley

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There is a virtual candlelight vigil scheduled for May 13 at 7 p.m. CST in honor of the law enforcement officers who have died protecting our communities and way of life.

In honor of National Police Week, U.S. Attorney Jay E. Town released a statement recognizing the service and sacrifice of federal, state, and local, law enforcement. National Police Week will be observed Sunday, May 10 through Saturday, May 16, 2020.

“During this unprecedented time, it is especially important that we recognize our men and women of the badge for the sacrifices they make each day,” Town said. “They have continued to put the safety of the citizens of Northern Alabama at the forefront and are the very best among us. It’s noble work It’s tough work. They have to be at their best, especially when the worst among us are at their worst. We must never forget that the line of duty is endowed by sacrifice, selflessness, and courage. It’s Police Week. Back the Blue!”

“There is no more noble profession than serving as a police officer,” said Attorney General William P. Barr. “The men and women who protect our communities each day have not just devoted their lives to public service, they’ve taken an oath to give their lives in order to ensure our safety. And they do so not only in the face of hostility from those who reject our nation’s commitment to the rule of law, but also in the face of evolving adversity – such as an unprecedented global health pandemic. This week, I ask all Americans to join me in saying ‘thank you’ to our nation’s federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement officers. Their devotion and sacrifice to our peace and security will not be taken for granted.”

“We must continue working toward a time when all people respect and understand the important work that law enforcement officers do,” said President Donald J. Trump (R). “Unfortunately, our law enforcement officers do not always receive the respect they deserve. These brave men and women must operate in an environment where their moral and legal authority is constantly being scrutinized, and they undertake the critical yet difficult task of addressing the actions of those affected by addiction, homelessness, and mental illness. Their ability to work well in the face of these and other challenges is extraordinary, and we have incredible appreciation for their public service and selflessness.”

“On behalf of our grateful Nation, we proudly recognize the more than 900,000 sworn members of law enforcement for their resolve and dedication in the face of dangerous uncertainty,” Pres. Trump continued. “The thoughts and prayers of our Nation are with them and their families, and we will always owe them our appreciation and support.”

In 1962, President Kennedy issued the first proclamation for Peace Officers Memorial Day and National Police Week to remember and honor law enforcement officers for their service and sacrifices. Peace Officers Memorial Day, which every year falls on May 15, specifically honors law enforcement officers killed or disabled in the line of duty.

Each year, during National Police Week, our nation celebrates the contributions of law enforcement from around the country, recognizing their hard work, dedication, loyalty and commitment to keeping our communities safe. This year the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored law enforcement officers’ courage and unwavering devotion to the communities they swore to serve.

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Based on data collected and analyzed by the FBI’s Law Enforcement Officer Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) Program, 89 law enforcement officers died nationwide in the line of duty in 2019. This includes three officers in the Northern District of Alabama. In 2019 six Alabama law enforcement officers were killed in the line of duty in 2019 including: Lowndes County Sheriff “Big John” Williams, Birmingham Police Officer WyTasha Carter, Mobile Police Officer Sean Tuder, Auburn Police Officer William Buechner, Monroe County Sheriff’s Deputy Julius “Jay” Dailey, and Tuscaloosa Police Detective Dornell Cousette.

The first officer fatality this year from the State of Alabama was Kimberly Police Department Officer Nick O’Rear on February 5, 2020.

The names of the fallen officers who have been added in 2020 to the wall at the National Law Enforcement Memorial will be read during the Virtual Annual Candlelight Vigil. Because public events have been suspended as a result of COVID-19, the vigil will be livestreamed to the public at 7:00 pm (CST). The online event can be viewed here.

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