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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?

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“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?

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?

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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).

 

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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SCOTUS majority seems likely to uphold Affordable Care Act

The U.S. Supreme Court will return to hear more arguments in the case on Nov. 30.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday heard opening oral arguments in the Republican’s latest challenge to the Affordable Care Act, and a majority of the justices seemed to side with the lawyers defending the law.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall joined other Republican state officials and the Trump administration in arguing that the portion of President Barrack Obama’s 2010 health care law, known as Obamacare, which mandated people buy health insurance or pay a tax, be deemed unconstitutional. The lawsuit argues that once that portion is found unconstitutional, the rest of the law should be struck down as well. 

If the ACA were struck down, at least 122,000 Alabamians and 21.1 million nationally would lose health coverage, according to a recent study by the Urban Institute. Trump made the ACA’s repeal a central part of his 2016 campaign and has continued to call for its demise, which would include the removal of protections for those with pre-existing conditions and portions of the law that allow young adults under the age of 26 to stay on their parents’ health insurance plans.

Congress in 2017 agreed to zero out the penalty from the individual mandate, which went away in 2019, but left the rest of the law in place. While the mandate to buy health care remains, there’s no penalty for not doing so. 

“I think it’s hard for you to argue that Congress intended the entire act to fall if the mandate were struck down, when the same Congress that lowered the penalty to zero, did not even try to repeal the rest of the Act,” said Chief Justice John Roberts to attorneys arguing for the plaintiffs during Tuesday’s hearing. “I think, frankly, that they wanted the court to do that, but that’s not our job.” 

Justice Brett Kavanaugh also expressed disagreement with plaintiffs’ arguments that the mandate could not be separated from the law. 

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“I tend to agree with you. This a very straightforward case for severability under our precedents, meaning that we would excise the mandate and leave the rest of the act in place,” Kavanaugh said. 

Former Obama administration solicitor general Donald Verrilli Jr., who’s defending the ACA on behalf of the U.S. House, told the justices that Congress wanted the remaining portions of the ACA to stand, and agreeing with the Republicans’ theory that the individual mandate can’t be separated from the law would upend Congress’s wishes. 

“It would cause enormous regulatory disruption up in the markets, cast 20 million Americans off health insurance during a pandemic and cost the states tens of billions of dollars during a fiscal crisis,” Verrilli said. “There’s no basis for that result in text intent or precedent.” 

Kyle Hawkins, the Texas solicitor general arguing for the challengers Tuesday, said “the mandate as it exists today is unconstitutional.” 

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“It is a naked command to purchase health insurance. And as such, it falls outside Congress’s enumerated powers,” Hawkins said, adding that the mandate is “inseparable from the remainder of the law.” 

Justice Sonia Sotomayor questioned Hawkins as to the standing of his case against the ACA, asking him whether people who had not signed up for health care when there was a tax associated for not doing so, would now sign up despite such tax. 

 “There’s only a small number of people who would do it. That small number of people have to include Medicaid and CHIP recipients to affect you as the state at all,” Sotomayor said. “And they would, once they’re told there’s no tax, enroll now, when they didn’t enroll when they thought that there was a tax. Does that make any sense to you?” 

The U.S. Supreme Court in a previous challenge of the law in 2012 ruled the individual mandate constitutional, and that the tax is a power afforded to Congress. Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts joined the court’s four liberals in that ruling. 

Followers of the court are watching conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett, President Donald Trump’s most recent pick, confirmed to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, closely for indications she may side with Republicans’ argument. Barrett didn’t give hints Tuesday as to how she might rule in the case, however. 

The U.S. Supreme Court will return to hear more arguments in the case on Nov. 30.

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Poll watchers in Alabama report massive turnout, long waits and machine shortages

One observer spoke to multiple people in long lines who vowed that they are ready to wait all night if they have to.

Micah Danney

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(STOCK PHOTO)

People are waiting in long lines for hours to vote across Alabama today due in part to massive turnout and in some places due to crashing machines, too few machines or too few ballots, election observers say.

Jefferson County Commissioner Sheila Tyson is one of 85 pastors visiting polling sites in the state’s most populous counties. They are members of a national network of poll chaplains “bringing a moral and peaceful presence to polls” in coordination with attorneys.

“I have never seen this before. Never, and I have been involved in politics since I was 10, and I’m 59 now,” Tyson said of the turnout. Secretary of State John Merrill has also predicted record-breaking turnout.

Machines at a site in Pleasant Grove went down this morning, she said, so her group called the election protection hotline and someone came and fixed them.

Tyson wasn’t told what went wrong with them.

When she left the Jefferson County Courthouse at 9:30 a.m., she estimated that there were at least 1,000 people in line waiting to use six voting booths inside. Tyson then went to Jonesboro Elementary School in Bessemer, where she said there were 500 people in line waiting to use two voting machines.

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Tyson said she thought there should have been more machines provided at both sites due to the high expected turnout.

Statewide, issues with voting machines have been sporadic and not widespread, according to observers with the state Democratic Party. In Tuscaloosa County, however, some voters who never received their mail-in ballots have shown up to cast provisional ballots and been asked to come back later because not enough extras had been printed.

Tyson said she doesn’t see the lines deterring anyone. She’s seeing determination.

“The urgency, like it’s an emergency,” she said.

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One woman who needed to pick up her medication from the pharmacy told a pastor where it was and he went and got it. She stayed in line. 

People brought chairs, some are playing music and handing out water and snacks, and young voters are giving up their chairs for seniors, Tyson said.

Her group is in touch with a 106-year-old woman they have helped to vote by absentee ballot in past elections. She has insisted on walking into her polling place today, Tyson said.

She has spoken to multiple people in long lines who vowed that they are ready to wait all night if they have to.

“They’re not leaving,” she said.

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Aderholt fully supports Barrett’s confirmation process

Confirmation hearings began last week and a vote on her confirmation is expected in the next week just days before the general election.

Brandon Moseley

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Congressman Robert Aderholt

Congressman Robert Aderholt, R-Alabama, updated his constituents on the confirmation process for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett. Aderholt said, “I do support her fully and I know she will defend life, protect the Constitution, and uphold our freedoms.”

Confirmation hearings began last week and a vote on her confirmation is expected in the next week just days before the general election.

“Senate Democrats are not seriously questioning Judge Barrett on her credentials, instead they have decided to attack her character and her beliefs,” Aderholt said. “I am disappointed to see this unfold on the national stage, but I think Judge Barrett stood strong and did well during this first week of hearings.”

“While I do not have a vote in her confirmation process, I do support her fully and I know she will defend life, protect the Constitution, and uphold our freedoms when she is officially sworn in as an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court,” Aderholt said.

Barrett is a Notre Dame graduate, has served on the U.S. Seventh Court of Appeals and is a former clerk for the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

“I clerked for Justice Scalia more than 20 years ago, but the lessons I learned still resonate,” Barrett said. “His judicial philosophy is mine, too: A judge must apply the law as written. Judges are not policymakers, and they must be resolute in setting aside any policy views they might hold.”

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Barrett vowed to keep an open mind on any matter that comes before the court, though Democrats fear she is prepared to overturn Supreme Court precedent on abortion rights and the Affordable Care Act.

That the Republican controlled committee will recommend that Barrett be confirmed appears certain. A vote to confirm Barrett to the nation’s highest court by the full Senate could occur just days ahead of the Nov. 3 election.

President Donald Trump has been the president of the United States for less than four years but if Barrett is confirmed, then he will have selected one third of the U.S. Supreme Court. Barrett fills a place created by the death of the late Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died in September.

Aderholt is in his 12th term representing Alabama’s 4th Congressional District. He faces Democratic nominee Rick Neighbors in the Nov. 3 general election.

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Lawsuit alleges “religious test” on Alabama voter registration form

Plaintiffs say the phrase “so help me God” amounts to a mandatory religious oath.

Micah Danney

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A lawsuit filed in federal court is challenging language on Alabama’s voter registration form, saying that the phrase “so help me God” amounts to a mandatory religious oath prohibited by the Constitution.

Alabama is the only state that requires voters to swear the truthfulness of their voter registration information by signing a form that includes those words without any option of a secular affirmation.

The lead plaintiff is Randal Cragun, an atheist who has sought to register to vote in Alabama since November 2019. He noticed that on the mail-in form that is downloadable from the secretary of state’s website, a warning states: “Read and sign under penalty of perjury,” and, “If you falsely sign this statement, you can be convicted and imprisoned for up to five years.” The declaration begins “I solemnly swear or affirm” and ends with “so help me God.”

Cragun contacted Secretary of State John Merrill’s office to ask how he could register without signing the declaration as it is written, according to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which filed the suit on behalf of Cragun and three other plaintiffs. The next day, Cragun was told by the director of elections that no legal mechanism existed to provide an alternative, and that crossing out any portion would result in the application being rejected.

“It is deplorable that in our secular nation nontheistic citizens are encountering a religious test to register to vote,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of FFRF. “No citizen should have to choose between their right to vote and their freedom of conscience.”

Before filing the lawsuit, the organization sent a letter to Merrill’s office saying that the oath violates the First Amendment. It cited Torcaso v. Watkins, in which the Supreme Court ruled that neither a state nor the federal government can force a person to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion.

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Merrill declined to comment until his office has been served with the lawsuit, but according to FFRF, he has maintained that the registration forms are “prescribed by statute” and “that any changes would require legislative action.”

The lawsuit alleges that his office has the authority to create and amend voter registration forms. In a statement, FFRF noted that in all other states, voters are provided either a secular registration form or are not required to submit an oath or affirmation.

The group added that government officials routinely allow people who must take an oath, including attorneys, jurors and witnesses, “to make a secular affirmation instead when they are unable to swear ‘so help me God’ as a matter of conscience.”

The plaintiffs are seeking a permanent injunction that prohibits the secretary of state from requiring voters who register to swear “so help me God” and that requires his office to provide voter registration forms that don’t include the phrase as a requirement. They are also asking for a declaratory judgment that Merrill has violated the Constitution by not providing a secular alternative.

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“The secretary of state has willfully excluded nontheist citizens from registering to vote and is coercing a statement of belief in a monotheistic god by requiring nontheists to swear a religious oath,” said Patrick Elliott, FFRF’s senior attorney in the litigation.

In its letter to Merrill, FFRF said that a constitutional ban on mandatory religious oaths is a “well-settled issue.” 

In a 1972 case, Nicholson v. Bd. of Comm’rs of Ala. State Bar Ass’n, the court ruled, “We hold that it is a violation of the Constitution for the state of Alabama to compel plaintiff to swear an oath invoking the help of God as a prerequisite to entering upon the practice of law.”

The suit’s three other plaintiffs are Chris Nelson, Heather Coleman and Robert Corker. 

It was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama, Southern Division. Steven P. Gregory, of the Birmingham-based Gregory Law Firm, is local counsel. FFRF associate counsel Liz Cavell is also involved in the case.

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