Judge shortage in Mobile, Baldwin among worst in Alabama

Legislature in 2017 created commission to reallocate judgeships, but it has not moved a single one
Published: Mar. 29, 2022 at 6:06 PM CDT
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MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - For months, public officials have been pointing to a backlog in criminal cases and claiming Mobile County does not have enough judges.

According to the Administrative Office of Courts, it’s not just an excuse. The bench really is undermanned.

The court system uses a formula taking into account the number and types of court cases to evaluate judicial staffing. The numbers for fiscal year 2019 – considered most relevant because they are un-skewed by the COVID-19 pandemic – show that the court systems in both Mobile and Baldwin have among the biggest need for judges in the state.

Under the formula, Baldwin is 2.65 circuit judges below its implied need, and Mobile is 2.63 judges under. That ranks third and fourth, respectively. Madison County, at 3.25 judges, ranks first.

At the District Court level, Baldwin has the most need – 1.99 judges under; Mobile is fourth at 1.78.

On the other side of the spectrum, Jefferson County Circuit Court has 7.98 more judges more than its caseload warrants. The Birmingham division of Jefferson County District Court has a surplus of 1.83 judges.

“I think, actually, we have an allocation problem more than we have a lack-of-judicial-manpower problem,” said James Reid, a retired Baldwin County Circuit Court judge who serves on the Alabama Judicial Resource Allocation Commission.

No judgeships have been moved

The Alabama Legislature created the commission in 2017 to redistribute judges from overstaffed courthouses to understaffed ones. But it so far has failed to shift even one judicial position. The law required three years’ worth of data before a judgeship could be moved, and then only when vacancies arose. Judgeships only can be moved on a two-thirds vote of the commission.

Reid said the commission almost moved a Jefferson County judicial slot, but before the panel could meet, somebody qualified to run for the position. Reid said the commission decided it would be unfair to move it at that point.

One judge in Jefferson County has been removed from office, and a second has been suspended. But even if the commission acts to move a circuit judgeship, Reid said Madison likely would get the slot ahead of Mobile. And, he added, the law allows only one judgeship to be removed every two years.

“So if this data is correct and Jefferson County is 10 judges over, it would take 20 years to correct the over-surplus of judges in Jefferson County and move them to other areas,” he said. “So I think … what really needs to be done is there needs to be some more legislation where the Legislature just mandates transfers of these judges.”

The lack of action by the commission has sparked frustration among the Mobile legislative delegation.

“What we really have to get is to the Administrative Office supports to get those judges assigned,” said state Rep. Matt Simpson (R-Daphne), whose district includes parts of Baldwin and Mobile counties. “There are areas overstaffed. We need to get some of those judges down here where we’re severely understaffed.”

State Rep. Barbara Drummond (D-Mobile) agreed.

“You can see that AOC budget has increased, but the money has not flowed to Mobile,” she told FOX10 News.

Drummond and Simpson both pointed to money included in the General Fund making its way through the House of Representatives. It includes additional funds to pay for judicial support workers in Mobile, but that money merely would replace funds put up by the county and city governments the past three years. Those funds expire this year.

Heavy caseloads in Mobile

Law enforcement officials frequently have complained about the backlog slowing criminal cases at Mobile Government Plaza. That logjam grew worse when jury trials were canceled or scaled back during the pandemic.

But even before COVID-19, Presiding Mobile County Circuit Judge Michael Youngpeter said, judges have been accustomed to heavy workloads.

“I’ve got 800 cases,” he said. “Each judge here has as many cases as the entire federal bench down here in Mobile.”

As a stopgap, four retired circuit court judges are gearing up to preside over jury trials on an as-needed basis. Yonugpeter said those judges – Charles Graddick, Rick Stout, John Lockett and Braxton Kitrell – will try as many cases as prosecutors can prepare above and beyond what the full-time judges can handle.

Youngpeter said the court system needs more than judges, though.

“The biggest issue we’ve had in those last few years has been our staff is not been up to speed in terms of staffing the judges we already have,” he said. “We’ve been more focused on at least fully staffing in our offices so that we can get more done per judge.”

Another option – one that would avoid the politically painful proposition of reducing judicial positions in counties with judge surpluses – is creating new positions. There are two bills pending in the state Senate to do that, although neither has gained much traffic.

One proposal would add one judge each in Madison County, Baldwin County and the circuit encompassing Autauga, Elmore and Chilton counties. A more ambitious plan would create 21 new positions, including two circuit positions each in Mobile and Baldwin and one district judge each in the two counties.

It would be costly, though. The Legislative Fiscal Offices estimates the 21 new judges plus 54 additional support personnel would cost taxpayers $6.3 million the first year and $8.4 million a year after that.

And there are logistical concerns.

“We (would) have to reconfigure a little bit, I think, to add – we couldn’t add three right now,” Youngpeter said. “We don’t have three courtrooms available. But we’d have to figure out exactly how to do this.”