By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News
A state-funded circuit court judgeship will move from Jefferson County to Madison County, the Alabama Judicial Resource Allocation Commission decided Thursday.
This is the first move by the commission since it was created in 2017 to redistribute circuit and district judges around the state based on caseloads.
The need for more judges in fast-growing parts of the state has become an issue in the Legislature, where conservative fiscal managers have balked at spending millions of dollars to create more seats for judges while they say Jefferson County has more than it needs.
The commission uses a weighted caseload study to determine where judges are most needed — and from whence they can be moved.
“The results from the most recent weighted caseload study adopted by the commission showed an excess of 7.98 circuit judges in the 10th Judicial Circuit (Jefferson County),” Alabama Chief Justice Tom Parker, head of the commission, said in a written statement Thursday. “The commission voted to reallocate the judgeship from the 10th Judicial Circuit to the 23rd Judicial Circuit (Madison County), which has a deficit of 3.25 circuit judges.
“While there is a need for 20 judgeships across the state — 12 circuit judgeships and 8 district judgeships — the Legislature created this mechanism of reallocation to correct the needs gradually, although it will not take care of the entire need, or the immediacy of the need.”
Judgeship may only be reallocated when a vacancy occurs due to the death, retirement, removal or resignation of a judge. Only one judgeship can be reallocated from any judicial circuit in a two-year period.
Like in other judicial vacancies, the new Madison County judge will be appointed by the governor until an election in 2024.
State Sen. Sam Givhan, R-Huntsville, in this year’s legislative session advocated for more funding to more quickly get additional judges in Madison and other counties.
He called Thursday’s move a Band-aid.
“(Madison County) is a little more than half the size of Jefferson County, but they’ve got four times the judges,” Givhan said. He’ll continue to advocate for more money for judges.
“We need to be looking at a global resolution and not just do this one judge at a time,” Givhan said.
Lawmakers from Jefferson County have opposed the idea that Jefferson County has too many judges and questioned the metrics used in studying caseloads.
Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, previously told Alabama Daily News that if judges are needed in areas of the state, the Legislature should fund them without taking seats away from his county.
Smitherman also said the largest county in the state often sees complex court cases that take more time to litigate.
“The sheer volume of the cases we have here and the complexity of these cases (require more judges),” he said earlier this year.
According to the commission, Madison County has the largest shortage of circuit judges. It needs 10.3 and has 7. The same report says Jefferson County’s circuit court needs 19 judges but has 27.
Madison County is now home to the state’s largest city and 388,513 people, per the 2020 census. But it has almost a quarter the number of circuit judges as Jefferson County, population 674,721.
On the district court side, there are 68 courts — Jefferson County has two — and Baldwin County has the greatest need with two judges. The Jefferson-Birmingham court has nearly two surplus judges.
Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, sponsored the 2017 bill that created the reallocation commission.
“This is what the law was intended to do,” Orr said on Thursday. “To move the resources from counties who have not grown or declined in growth and reallocate those resources to areas of the state where there has been high growth and where the judges are overwhelmed, such as Madison County.”
He said this option is more prudent than throwing money at the problem by funding additional judges.
Earlier this year, Parker recommended the Legislature create 12 circuit judgeships in seven circuits around the state, including three in Madison County, two in the circuit that includes Autauga, Chilton and Elmore counties, and two each in Mobile and Baldwin counties.
The total cost for one year would be about $5.4 million, Parker said.
The commission also recommended the creation of eight district judgeships. They’re ranked by need in Baldwin, Shelby, Madison, Mobile, Etowah, DeKalb, Cullman and Tuscaloosa counties.
The cost would be about $2.8 million.