The Alabama House of Representatives passed legislation Tuesday that would bring back retired judges on a part-time basis to deal with a judge shortage and a growing backlog of cases in the Alabama Judicial System.
House Bill 109 is sponsored by state Rep. Jim Hill, R-Odenville, a retired St. Clair County circuit court judge and the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. He explained that there is an enormous shortage of judges in the Alabama Judicial System, and that has led to a backlog of cases, particularly in growing areas of the state like St. Clair, Madison and Baldwin Counties, where the number of circuit court judges has not grown as fast as the population of the county.
COVID-19 has made all of this much worse, because it is difficult to have jury trials and maintain the proper social distancing in Alabama’s courtrooms, Hill explained.
“Some counties have only been holding capital murder trials,” Hill stated. “It is possible to still hold trials where there is a judge only,” but it is not possible to bring a jury in and still maintain safe social distancing.
State Rep. Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee, said that there are some defendants who have been locked up in county jails for years waiting on their case to appear on a court docket.
A retired judge can handle up to 75 percent of the caseload of adding a new circuit court judge, Hill said, but they would be making just 25 percent of the pay they receive when they last worked as a judge.
This bill passed out of the House last year, but COVID-19 interrupted the session before the Senate could deal with it. The House considered this in 2019 as well, but could not figure out how to pay for it then.
Hill said that criminal trials are only part of what a judge actually does. There is a huge backlog in civil cases waiting to be heard including domestic cases involving child custody.
According to the fiscal note for HB109 prepared by House Ways and Means General Fund Committee Chairman Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, House Bill 109 would cost $45,681 per circuit judge recalled to interim active duty and an estimated $45,345 per district judge recalled to active service.
This bill would also increase the administrative obligations of the chief justice and the Administrative Office of Courts, by an undetermined amount, to certify, prior to a judge being recalled to interim active duty, that there is a need in the region where the judge will serve based on the most recent weighted caseload study.
The Judicial Resources Allocation Commission reports that eight interim active circuit judges, seven interim active district court judges, 15 administrative support staff and eight special roving court reporters are needed. The estimated annual additional cost for these positions would be $2,169,225.
Hill said that this is a fraction of what adding more full-time judges would cost.
HB109 passed the Alabama House of Representatives by a vote of 109 to 0, and it will now go on to the Senate for their consideration.