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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?

“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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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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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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Prison worker: Officer exposed to COVID-19 was forced to work before inmate tests positive

Eddie Burkhalter

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After the Alabama Department of Corrections announced Wednesday that an inmate at the Hamilton Aged and Infirmed facility tested positive for COVID-19, the staff at Hamilton already had a pretty good idea about how the virus entered the building.

One worker at Hamilton Aged and Infirmed told APR on Thursday that a correctional officer at Hamilton had been ordered to sit at a hospital with an inmate from St. Clair Correctional Facility, who had been taken to the hospital on May 4.

That inmate was Dave Thomas, 66, who tested positive for COVID-19 on May 6, according to the Alabama Department of Corrections, and died within 24 hours of receiving the test results.

“He [the correctional officer] didn’t know that he [Thomas] was infected, or dying with COVID-19, and was not given PPE or told of the situation,” the worker told APR.

APR has confirmed the worker’s identity, but will not release the employee’s name as the person still works at the facility.

The worker said after the correctional officer learned that Thomas had COVID-19 and had died, the following day, “they sent him back to Hamilton.”

“Instead of giving him time off to quarantine, because he had no symptoms, they made him come to work here Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday,” the worker said.

In a response to APR on Thursday, an ADOC spokeswoman doesn’t deny the worker’s statement, that the correctional officer was asked to return to work at Hamilton without quarantining to ensure he showed no symptoms before returning to work.

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Hamilton Aged and Infirmed houses the state’s most vulnerable inmates to COVID-19, older inmates who have medical conditions and who, if they contract the virus, are much more likely to suffer serious complications or death.

The correctional officer at Hamilton still hasn’t shown symptoms of COVID-19, the worker said, but he also hasn’t yet been tested for the virus, and said that none of the other correctional officers from Hamilton who also had contact with Thomas in the hospital before he died have been tested for COVID-19, either.

The inmate at Hamilton who recently tested positive for coronavirus was taken to a local hospital after exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, where he later tested positive, ADOC said in a press release Wednesday.

ADOC spokeswoman Samantha Rose in a response to APR on Thursday said that all officers who had contact with Thomas were notified as soon as ADOC learned of the positive test result, and were asked to go to their own doctors and report the potential exposure to COVID-19. Rose said ADOC does not test staff, “nor are we legally able to require staff testing as an employer.”

“All officers with potential contact were sent to the ADOC’s Office of Health Services (OHS) for follow up, and subsequently our records indicate every officer listed as a contact received a test for COVID-19 and all were reported negative,” Rose said.

The Hamilton employee told APR on Friday that’s simply untrue, and that none of the officers, three of whom were working on Friday, have been tested for COVID-19.

Some staff at Hamilton have been asked for many weeks to work week-long shifts at St. Clair Correctional Facility, the worker told APR on Thursday and in an interview on March 31.

Once the correctional officer had learned that he’d been sitting with a COVID-19 positive inmate for an entire shift, the St. Clair prison would not allow him to return to work at that facility, but Hamilton prison administrators required him to return to Hamilton without delay, the worker said Thursday.

“We are an aged and infirmed facility with a lot of inmates with underlying conditions and medications and all of that,” the worker said. “So we all thought it was pretty strange that that happened, which they told him ‘you’ve got to work.’ So we believe he actually was asymptomatic and infected people here weeks in advance.”

Additionally, the inmate with the confirmed COVID-19 case had gotten sick prior to being taken to the hospital, and was moving back and forth between his room and Hamilton’s infirmary, potentially exposing other inmates and staff.

“He was never housed in there but he took showers and went to med call,” the worker said of the inmate’s time spent in the infirmary before he was tested at an outside hospital.

Yet there’s been no blanket testing of inmates at Hamilton, the worker said, so staff are concerned that the virus could already be spreading.

Two inmates at Hamilton have been tested for COVID-19 as of Thursday, and one resulted in a confirmed case, according to ADOC. Rose said Thursday that five other inmates who were living with the inmate who tested positive have also since been tested, however, and have been quarantined.

ADOC is to update testing numbers on Friday.

As of Thursday, 102 of Alabama’s approximately 22,000 inmates statewide had been tested for COVID-19, according to ADOC. 

“All the officers are definitely on the edge,” the worker said. “Now we’re spraying and cleaning left and right. The department is reacting. There’s no proactive in the department whatsoever. We just react to whatever the situation is, and then try to fix it, and by then it’s too late, especially with this disease.”

Hamilton staff are doing temperature checks on all inmates twice a day, and staff is checked for temperatures at the start of shifts, but the worker said without tests the extent of the spread inside can’t be known.

“It’s been poorly handled,” the employee said. “All they’re concerned about is new prisons. New prisons. That’s all you ever hear.”

ADOC and Gov. Kay Ivey continue to push Ivey’s plan to build three new mega prisons under a build-lease plan in partnership with private companies, which would consolidate most of the state’s aging facilities.

Criminal reform advocates have said that without substantive sentencing reforms and systemic changes to Alabama prisons’ culture of violence, new prisons won’t solve the problems laid out in a U.S. Department of Justice report, which detailed horrific violence, sexual assaults and corruption.

The Hamilton inmate who tested positive was taken from Brookwood Baptist Medical Center to the Limestone Correctional Facility, where he was placed in that facility’s quarantine area, the worker said.

The worker said Thursday there was another Hamilton inmate at the hospital whom he believes was being held in the COVID-19 area, although it was unclear Thursday whether the man had been tested.

The remaining areas in Hamilton were placed on a “level one” quarantine, which ADOC said means inmates will be monitored for symptoms of the virus, and have their temperatures checked twice daily.

In a previous interview with the Hamilton worker on March 31, the person said ADOC wasn’t following the department’s own guidelines to keep inmates and staff safe from COVID-19 at the time.

The worker said that despite ADOC’s lockdown of the facility, meaning inmates weren’t to be coming or going between Hamilton and other facilities, the transfers were still happening.

ADOC on March 18 announced that “inmate transfers between facilities are suspended” but that “security and healthcare exceptions may be granted.”

Three inmates had just recently been taken to Hamilton from the Kilby Correctional Facility who didn’t appear to have any other health issues “as far as aged and infirmed,” the worker said on March 31, and all three had elevated temperatures.

“We have a policy that you can’t come in if your temperature is above 100.4. That’s workers or anybody that comes into the facility,” the employee said. “And our captain called Mr. Ellington, turned them around. He sent them back to Kilby.”

The employee told APR on Thursday that inmates were still being transferred to and from Hamilton, St. Clair prison and the William Donaldson Correctional Facility.

The employee said some of those inmates might meet ADOC’s terms of still allowing transfers for “security and healthcare exceptions” but that many clearly do not.

“That’s what they’re telling, but that’s not the case,” the worker said.

The worker said on March 31 that some staff at Hamilton were being asked to work weeklong shifts at the St. Clair Correctional Facility, where there had already been one confirmed COVID-19 case among a staff member at that time.

“We have asked not to have to transfer down there to work, week in and week out, to no avail. It’s go or get wrote up,” the worker said.

ADOC just wasn’t doing what the department said it was doing, the worker said, and staff felt it was putting them and the inmates in harm’s way.

“It’s to the point that you go to work, you just go to work. You don’t ask questions. ‘We’ll tell you what’s best for you’,” the worker said.

ADOC spokeswoman Rose in the message to APR on Thursday said that the Hamilton staffs’ concern that the officer who was may have brought the virus into the facility are “speculative and not based on any evidence.”

“Our response to this unprecedented situation thus far has been informed, timely, and in line with the CDC’s guidelines for correctional institutions,” Rose said. “We are learning and gathering more information every day, and actively making appropriate strategic shifts to improve.”

“If a breakdown in new procedures or preventative measures occurs, we fix it as soon as we are made aware,” the message continues. “This institution is not just walls and fences – its comprised of dedicated individuals who are passionate about doing the right thing and making a positive impact in the lives of other human beings.”

Arthur Ahmed, 69, died May 6 while serving out his sentence for first-degree assault at the St. Clair prison, where a total of three inmates have tested positive for the virus and at least one has died after testing positive for COVID-19.

Ahmed is the third inmate to die in an Alabama prison of an unstated cause in less than two weeks.

Richard Jason Reed, 35, died May 2 at the Bullock County prison. ADOC said no foul play was suspected, he was showing no symptoms of COVID-19 and his cause of death was pending an autopsy.

Alvin Daniels, 68, died on April 25 at the Limestone prison and although no foul play is suspected, his exact cause of death is also pending an autopsy, Rose told APR on April 28.

All three prisons where inmates have died over the last two weeks of undisclosed causes have identified cases of COVID-19 either among staff or among inmates.

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