HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) — In the midst of continuing judicial funding deficits Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore issued an order instructing circuit clerk offices to close to the public on Wednesdays by the end of the month.
Although both circuit and district court clerks’ offices will be closed to the public beginning March 20, the order says staff work hours should not change.
“Our employees will continue to work and process the paper work but the public will not be able to access those offices unless they do so electronically,” said Madison County Circuit Judge Karen Hall Friday.
In addition, the order calls for the use of a public drop box to allow for time-sensitive or emergency filings.
Moore cites in his order a state funding shortfall for Alabama courts to the tune of $25 million for fiscal year 2013. According to Moore’s order the ‘chronic and substantial’ lack of adequate funding of the judicial branch has resulted in a myriad of problem such as a net loss of 498 employees since 2001; most prominently, the order says, in court clerks’ offices and the juvenile probation offices.
“We remain hopeful that we can find a creative way to continue to open our clerk’s office to the public on Wednesdays,” said Judge Hall. “However, the order from the chief justice is clear that we need to evaluate our circumstances and in light of the budget shortfalls we will comply with the order of the chief justice.”
The order says a great deal of essential work in the circuit clerk’s offices must be done when employees are not serving the general public and without some provision for this work to be accomplished, clerks would not be able to perform their duties in an adequate and timely manner.
“As with any business, when you have to stop and engage in phone conversations or public interaction, professional interaction, you stop what you’re doing and take time away from the necessary paperwork,” said Judge Hall.
Chief Justice Moore’s order says former Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb, in response to ‘significant but less dire under-funding’ during her administration issued a July 2001 order permitting clerks’ office closings.
Circuit and district clerks’ offices statewide are now charged with notifying the general public — as well as members of the bar who regularly practice in a respective county — of the changes.
“All of the judges in this circuit, and our circuit clerk [Jane Smith] remain dedicated to serving the people of Madison County,” said Judge Hall. “We are going to comply to this order but we are going to what is necessary to serve the citizens of this state and this county.”
Marshall County Circuit Judge Howard Hawk said he plans to request an exemption for Circuit Clerk Cheryl Pierce and her staff to continue to work with the public Wednesdays.
Moore’s order states the offices will be closed “absent objection and request to this Office for exemption by the Presiding Judge of the Circuit,” and Judge Hawk said he contacted the Administrative Office of Courts Thursday to find out what steps he must take.
“They’ll tell me how and I’m pretty sure I’ll then try to jump through the hoops to get us an exemption. Whether it will be granted or not, I don’t know,” Judge Hawk said.
“Basically we saved no money and we cut out accessibility and we did it on one day, or at least a choice of days under the previous order but now it looks like mandatory on one day, but we do have a chance for an exemption, which I am going to ask for,” he said.
Under the directive of then-Chief Justice Cobb, the Marshall County Circuit Clerk closed Fridays starting in August 2011. Last week, they opened to the public on Friday for the first time, but will only have three weeks of Monday through Friday service before March 20.
“Anytime the public cannot get to public officials, clerical, judicial, law enforcement, whatever, it causes problems because we’re in the business of serving the public and it’s sort of hard to serve the public if the public can’t find you,” Judge Hawk said.
Circuit Clerk Cheryl Pierce agreed and said she wants to be of convenience the public.
“We’ve all been here working, we just haven’t been open to the public,” Pierce said.
“The reason being is we have lost so many employees. I’m down to 50 percent and I have used our restitution recovery money to hire part-time employees, but I have half the core specialists that I am supposed to have with our manpower,” she said.
All but one of the circuit clerk staff at the Albertville Courthouse are part-time. Pierce said an e-filing system helps process cases faster, but the number of filings are increasing.
She said her staff is used to being closed to the public one day a week and it will not affect them whether that day is Wednesday or Friday. She said her main concern is issues with the court calendar which is often busier on Wednesdays than it is on Fridays.
Judge Hawk said he wishes Chief Justice Moore allowed local input on the closings.
“Different circuits, different counties have different needs. They have different amounts of staff and handle different types of cases. There’s not a once size that fits all that can come out of Montgomery. We’ve worked very hard to reorganize our system to become efficient and deal with the cuts we’ve had to endure over the last year or so,” he said.