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Senate passes bill adding circuit, district judges

The Alabama Senate on Thursday approved legislation that would create 13 new circuit and district judge positions around the state — a compromise after years of impasse about judicial need and funding. 

A substitute version of Sen. Sam Givhan’s Senate Bill 39 would create:

  • For election in 2024, four additional circuit judgeships in the districts in Lauderdale County; Autauga, Chilton and Elmore counties; Madison County; and Baldwin County and three district judgeships in Baldwin, DeKalb and Mobile counties.
  • For election in 2026, four circuit judgeships in districts in Tuscaloosa County; Autauga, Chilton and Elmore counties; Baldwin County and Lee County and district judgeships in Madison and Shelby counties.

When all the new positions are elected, they will cost the state at least $5.4 million per year, according to a fiscal note on the bill. Givhan on the Senate floor Thursday said that will come from money already allocated to the court system.

Givhan, R-Huntsville, has brought previous bills to get more judges in Madison County and other high-need areas of state. This bill fills the 13 vacancies outlined in this year’s report from the Judicial Reallocation Commission.

“My (original) bill was a Band-Aid bill, this is not a Band-Aid bill,” Givhan said in the Senate Judiciary Committee meeting last week. 

Givhan’s previous efforts were blocked in part by Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, and others representing Jefferson County who wanted to protect the number of judges there. Meanwhile, fiscal conservatives in the Senate have been hesitant to fund additional judgeships when an annual report said Jefferson County had a surplus.

The bill also prohibits the Judicial Resources Allocation Commission from reallocating any vacant judgeships until 2027 and requires it to provide additional docket information to the Legislature each year.

 “We will then have the facts to make those (judicial need) decisions,” Givhan said Thursday.

On the Senate floor Thursday, Smitherman called this bill the “definition of politics and the art of compromise.” 

In 2017, the Legislature established a Judicial Resource Allocation Commission, chaired by the Alabama chief justice, to identify areas of the state where judges are needed and where there are more than needed for the caseloads. It reports its findings each year to lawmakers.

The 2017 law also says that when a sitting judge retires or dies, the commission “shall have 30 days to determine whether to reallocate such judgeship to another district or circuit.” That happened once, last year, when a circuit judgeship was moved from Jefferson County to Madison County, despite objections from Jefferson County lawmakers. 

Meanwhile, only one judgeship can be reallocated from any judicial circuit in a two-year period. Givhan and others have argued that’s too long to wait when their areas have court backlogs now.

The bill now goes to the House. 


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