MADISON COUNTY, Ala. (WHNT) — In a March 6 report the Alabama Supreme Court recommends moving four judgeships from Jefferson County to relieve the judicial workload in Madison and Mobile counties.
Based on a weighted caseload analysis the report to the Alabama Legislature proposes moving three circuit judges and one district judge from Jefferson County. Mobile County would get two new circuit judges under the plan and one would go to Madison County.
Madison County would also get a district judgeship currently based in Jefferson County and Mobile would get a district judgeship now in Walker County.
“There are needs for additional judgeships throughout the state,” says Presiding Madison County Circuit Judge Karen Hall. “But because of the budget crisis, everyone had to look at the best way to redistribute the judgeships in places where populations have decreased.”
The law allows for the re-allocation of judgeships following a vacancy by death or retirement but that poses a sort of morbid waiting game for Alabama judicial districts in need.
So how do you tell a county they will lose one or more of their judgeships? Judge Karen Hall says for years, the associations of district and circuit judges, their executive committees and particularly the Chief Justices of the Alabama Supreme Court have been looking at ways to best accommodate counties lacking black robes.
Every time a circuit requests a judgeship, the law requires the Supreme Court within three weeks to report to the legislature its recommendations. Chief Justice Roy Moore’s report suggests the proposed moves should take place before the Alabama House enacts a current bill which proposes a new circuit judgeship for Tuscaloosa County.
“In addition to saying, yes, they need a new judge in Tuscaloosa County, he went one step further and said this is the plan we would propose.”
The Alabama Supreme Court adopted the weighted caseload system as the benchmark tool to determine judgeship needs in 1987. The system has been updated since that time, with the most recent study in 2007. Studies suggest for the last three years, new civil court filings in Jefferson County have steadily dropped.
Judge Karen Hall says the plan for re-allocation would provide cases in Madison County to be heard in a more timely manner as well as give the circuit the opportunity to look into specialization among their judges.
“I’m excited about the possibility,” says Hall. “I think my colleagues are excited about the possibility. If we add one or two more judges then we’ll sit down and ask, okay, is it time to have a family court — a true family court? Is it time to have a civil division, a criminal division, can we specialize? That’s what they do in larger circuits like Jefferson County.”
“It is great news,” says Madison County District Attorney Rob Broussard. “The judiciary here in Madison County has been understaffed for year and we’ve needed more judges for years.
But it is not as cut and dry as that, says Broussard. He continued with a caveat.
“Assuming good news hits us and we do get more judges that means every other part of the system has to increase to kind of keep up with the judges,” Broussard points out.
Broussard says if Madison County does gain two judges, that effectively means a 33 percent increase in the judiciary. Broussard says the District Attorney’s office will have to find a way to keep up the pace — and it all comes down to money, he says.
“As it is now, everyone knows how the funding is in the state for everybody and we’re cutting it real thin right now,” Broussard insists. “So if there is an increase in judges we need more prosecutors — that’s plain and simple the reality of it.”
Broussard says data shows Madison County is in need of more judges, arguably more than any other area of the state, but with an increase would come additional workload on the prosecution as well as the defense.
“It’s not a one little area fix-all sort of solution.”
No timetable for approval is given in the report and the decision rests with the Alabama Legislature.