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Bill to create new circuit judge seats advances; lawmakers still far apart on reallocation

A bill to create three new circuit judgeships in north, central and south Alabama got a favorable committee report — and a warning — Wednesday as the judicial reallocation conversation in the Legislature remains complicated.

House Bill 153 creates an additional circuit judgeship in each of three circuits: Madison County, Baldwin County and Autauga, Chilton and Elmore counties.

Bill sponsor Rep. Troy Stubbs, R-Wetumpka, told the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday that he knows more parts of the state need additional judges, but his bill is a start.

“We can continue to not move anywhere, or we can start making progress,” Stubbs said. He said the judge shortage is creating backlogs and affecting Alabamians who wait for months or longer for court cases.

An additional eight circuit court and five district court judges are needed in various parts of the state, according to a recent report. The same report said Jefferson County has an excess of judges.

Fiscal conservatives in the Legislature in recent years have balked at creating new judgeships — the fiscal note on Stubbs’ bill says three seats would be about $1.35 million per year — if there are too many in Jefferson County. There is a reallocation process in place that allows seats to be moved in the event of retirement, but it only allows for one move from a district every two years.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Jim Hill, R-Moody, who has a bill to create seven circuit and five district court judge seats pending in the House General Fund budget committee, told Stubbs that the committee knows there is a budget shortage in his district, but his bill will also have to go through the budget committee. 

“The truth is, even if you get a favorable report (today), this is going to go to Ways and Means, and it does need to be factored in with the overarching situation we have in the state,” Hill said.

The Senate version of the same bill, sponsored by Sen. Sam Givhan, R-Huntsville, was carried over Wednesday in the Senate Judiciary Committee as Democrats, led by Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, pushed for more funding for more judicial seats statewide. And for Jefferson County’s judges to be left alone.

Smitherman has long argued that the caseload formula used by the Judicial Resource Allocation Commission, chaired by the Alabama chief justice, isn’t accurate and Jefferson County doesn’t have a surplus of judges. He also said the state could use its record revenue to fund all needed judgeships and fix the problem statewide once and for all.

“We have the money,” Smitherman said. “… (But) we’re going to spend $25 million on a water park?”

He was referencing Gov. Kay Ivey’s proposal for spending nearly $2.8 billion in excess education budget revenue. It includes $25 million for a whitewater park development in Montgomery. 

Givhan has previously sponsored other bills to create more judge seats. He said Wednesday he’s trying to do what will get funded. The Senate General Fund budget committee chairman, Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, is a co-sponsor.

“I refer to this as the Band-Aid bill, it doesn’t solve all the problems… but it moves the ball forward,” Givhan said. But he agreed to carry the bill over for further discussion about funding more seats.

Sen. Will Barfoot, R-Pike Road, is the judiciary committee chairman and is sponsoring SB144, the same more expansive bill Hill has in the House. It was on the Senate General Fund budget committee agenda Wednesday but was removed before the meeting. 

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