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Judge asked to reverse relocation of Alabama court seat

After a special commission moved a vacant judicial seat from a mostly Black county to a mostly white one, attorneys for civil rights groups argue the Alabama Legislature is unlawfully delegating its authority to fill vacant judgeships.

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (CN) — The relatively new process by which Alabama allocates district and circuit judicial seats is facing its first constitutional challenge.

On Monday, opposing parties met in a Montgomery County courtroom to argue whether the state’s Judicial Resources Allocation Commission unlawfully stripped a judicial seat from predominantly Black Jefferson County and awarded it to predominantly white Madison County.  

The Alabama Legislature created JRAC in 2017 to establish criteria for determining the need for increasing or decreasing the number of judgeships in state courts, and to reallocate judgeships based on that criteria. The commission used three years of data from 2017-2019 to compile a weighted caseload study, indicating Madison County was in the most need of judges and Jefferson County was in the least need.  

The commission can only move a judgeship from one county to another after a vacancy is created due to resignation, retirement, death or removal from office. But rather than recommend reallocations, the commission has requested, in three separate instances, for the Legislature to fund new positions instead. Most recently, JRAC recommended funding 12 new circuit judgeships and 8 new district judgeships statewide, including in Madison County. 

Madison County is home to Huntsville, which recently eclipsed Birmingham to become the state’s most populous city. Birmingham is in Jefferson County, whose population has declined each year since 2015. 

The plaintiff, Tiara Young-Hudson, is an attorney for the Jefferson County Public Defender’s Office who won the Democratic primary for Place 14 in Jefferson County’s 10th Judicial Circuit in May with 54% of the vote. But in June, the incumbent announced his retirement, effective immediately. Within 10 days, JRAC met and voted 8-3 — along racial lines — to reallocate the vacant seat to Madison County.  

Republican Governor Kay Ivey accepted the recommendation and on July 18, appointed Patrick Tuten to serve in the reallocated seat in Madison County. The following day, Young-Hudson filed a complaint for declaratory judgement and injunctive relief, claiming the Legislature unlawfully delegated its own duty to reallocate judgeships, while asking the court to invalidate Tuten’s appointment in Madison County and restore the seat vacated in Jefferson County. 

“JRAC did something only the Legislature is authorized to do,” attorney Liza Weisberg argued Monday morning. “They stripped a seat from [Jefferson County] and gave it away.” 

Weisberg added the Alabama Constitution codifies the number of judges in each circuit, and it has not been amended to reflect the recent reallocation. Further, Jefferson County has its own Judicial Nominating Committee, which was in the process of vetting candidates to fill the vacancy when JRAC intervened and removed the seat.  

“Hudson had applied for the appointment and was ready and able to serve,” Weisberg said. “There is substantial harm and confusion in Jefferson County every single day” from the uncertainty of the vacancy and the potential permanent loss of a judicial seat, she added. 

Arguing on behalf of the state, Assistant Attorney General Reid Harris said the court had no jurisdiction because the proper remedy for the complaint is a pro warranto action and Young-Hudson's alleged injury cannot be considered for standing. 

“The Legislature very clearly laid out standards for JRAC to follow when filling a vacancy,” Harris said, arguing for the suit to be dismissed. “They followed those standards and the only question is whether the Legislature had the power to create the commission and whether the commission acted within the scope of its authority.” 

Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Jimmy B. Pool, who denied Young-Hudson's motion to continue the case, gave the parties until Aug. 12 to submit proposed orders. 

After the hearing, attorney Tish Gotell Faulks, who also represented Young-Hudson on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union, said JRAC’s mission is valid and important, but the Legislature has used the commission as a scapegoat to avoid its own responsibilities.  

“JRAC has been exemplary in giving the Legislature an insight into the tools they need, the funding they need, the support they need, but unfortunately, the Legislature perpetually fails to act on the information they asked for,” Faulks said. 

JRAC’s own studies have suggested it would take another $8.2 million per year to fund the recommended 20 new judges and support staff. State trial courts were funded with a $201.1 million line item from the general fund this year. 

Faulks noted the state is sitting on roughly $1.3 billion in unspent funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, which the governor and Legislature have wide discretion to spend. Already they have agreed to spend $400 million of ARPA funds on new prison construction. Faulks noted that as the state grows, simply reallocating judicial seats will not meet the needs of counties with heavy caseloads. 

“I think this is a question of political will and this is a moment of political pressure,” Faulks said. “At this point, I don’t know whether the Legislature is prepared to do what it is called upon to do, but the people of Alabama need to understand this is their exclusive domain.” 

While the racial element of Young-Hudson's complaint is based on demographics, Faulks noted that should the injunction fail, JRAC will likely return to Jefferson County to reallocate its next vacant seat. Theoretically, the loss of judges will slow access to justice for both victims and defendants. 

“The loss of one judge is disruptive, the loss of two judges is devastating,” she said. “If we are successful in getting this injunction, I anticipate the state will immediately seek review from a higher court … but I really think this is a moment that would benefit from the governor and Legislature calling a special session, thinking through what they need to do to resource the judiciary, and then move forward from there.” 

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