Friday, June 2, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Bills aim to alleviate backlog in Alabama courts

The state’s judiciary has been asking legislators to fund new judgeships in growing counties since 2018. With a budget surplus of $2.7 billion, they now appear to be considering it.

(CN) — Alabama lawmakers have introduced legislation aimed at alleviating a backlog of cases in the circuit and district courts of growing counties, but some bills go further than others.

The bills are a product of recommendations from the state’s Judicial Resources Allocation Commission, which was created in 2017 to establish criteria for determining the need for increasing or decreasing the number of judgeships in state courts, and for reallocating judgeships based on that criteria. 

Several legislative sessions have come and gone since the commission issued its first weighted caseload study in 2018, which indicated 25 of the state’s 42 judicial circuits operated with a deficit of judges, although the deficits in the five busiest circuits were deemed most critical. In 2018, 2020 and 2022, the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, de facto chairperson of the commission, wrote letters to the Legislature urging lawmakers to authorize certain new judgeships, but until this year only one bill was ever introduced. It never made it to committee. 

In January, Chief Justice Tom Parker wrote to lawmakers again, admitting that although the caseload has generally decreased statewide since 2019, six circuits were in need of eight new circuit court judges, while five circuits were in need of five new district court judges. The commission recommended two new circuit judges for Baldwin, Autauga, Chilton and Elmore counties, while recommending one new circuit judge each in Tuscaloosa, Lauderdale, Madison and Lee counties. New district judges are needed in Baldwin, DeKalb, Madison, Mobile and Shelby counties.

“The above-listed judicial circuits and counties have immediate critical needs, and the addition of circuit court judges with staff in each of these judicial circuits and district court judges with staff in each of the listed counties will help substantially in meeting the current judicial needs and place these circuits and counties more in line with the needs of the rest of the state,” Parker wrote. 

The letter also noted the circuit court additions would cost $3.6 million per year, while the district court additions would cost $1.75 million per year. 

Since the most recent legislative session began in March, four bills have been introduced in the House and Senate to provide new judgeships in growing counties, although only two appear to adhere to the commission’s recommendations. 

House Bill 145 and Senate Bill 144 would fill all positions over a period of three years, while House Bill 183 and Senate Bill 39 would provide just three circuit judges for Baldwin, Madison, Elmore, Autauga and Chilton counties, while providing no district judges at all and ignoring the need for new circuit judges in four other counties.

According to a fiscal note accompanying SB 39, the cheaper option “would increase the obligations of the State General Fund by an estimated $1.01 million for fiscal year 2025 and a minimum of $1.35 million for fiscal years 2026 through 2031.”

State Representative Jim Hill, a Republican retired judge from St. Clair County, sponsored HB 145 and believes in a more comprehensive solution. 

“There's places where just the growth in caseloads is such that I think mandates additional judicial assets in those areas,” Hill said by phone Wednesday. “I am satisfied that the slots we are allocating are needed and I think if we can get that accomplished over the next three to five years, we will be well-served to have done that.”

Hill said he can only speculate that other bills providing for fewer judges were written out of concern for the budget, even though the Legislature is considering a $2.7 billion surplus this year. 

“But from my point of view, it’s not a hard decision,” he said. “I’ve talked about this off and on for years. We just completed the 2020 Census and if you look at where the population is going, that is where the caseloads are going. I think [HB 145] is appropriate given the data we have.

"People deserve their time in court and if a court is so backed up that it takes years to get a hearing, that’s unfortunate. We should do our best to see people — whether it’s civil, criminal, domestic, whatever kind of case — get their day in court in a timely manner, as quickly as we're able to do so.”

State Senator Sam Givhan, a Republican attorney who represents Madison County and a co-sponsor of SB 39, said the three circuit judgeships funded in his bill target only the fastest three growing circuits. Madison County was actually awarded a new judgeship last year as part of a controversial reallocation process, but Givhan said the caseload is only manageable because a retired judge is currently working there without compensation. 

Givhan said he understands a more comprehensive bill like Hill has proposed, but believes a more piecemeal approach has a better chance of passing both houses of the Legislature. 

“There are different ideas of how we get [to the commission’s recommendations], but I think our bill has a decent chance of moving,” he said. “I realize it just puts out a couple of fires that are burning now and doesn’t solve all our problems, but I think this is an issue you will continue to see involvement in throughout the quadrennium.”

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.