Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore has been lobbying for an increase in the justice system’s share of the 2014 general fund budget proposed by Gov. Robert Bentley. The Legislature considers the governor’s proposed budget this month, after a return from spring break.
This is the second time Moore has taken the high bench in historic low economic times. In 2001, he took office as chief justice just after the dotcom, 9/11 crash. In 2013, he’s battling the lingering effects of the great recession.
There’s some irony in the fact that Moore, a Tea Party enthusiast, is a staunch critic of government spending — a disposition he shares with the governor.
“There’s no stopping it, as long as you feed it, ” Bentley told the Business Council of Alabama at their annual meeting last summer, speaking of state government. Having cut $675 million from the budget he was then working on, he told business leaders, “Maybe a billion dollars is too low.”
That’s where we started our talk with Moore, who has been asking the governor for some rollback in cuts.
Everybody has his own political view. I, like the governor, believe that government is something that can grow too large, and you have to manage things like you manage a business. But the judicial branch is an essential part, a branch of government, not something that’s grown too large. We do everything we can to cut the growth of government. Tuscaloosa County has applied for another judgeship, and I’ve gone to the Legislature to see if we could shift some judgeships around in the state rather than create a new one. Our problem is that we can’t fund what we have. We were cut $25 million last year, and, when they proposed the Fee and Cost Bill, it was supposed to raise $25 million. But it only raised $12 million, and we ended up $13 million short.
We’re in a recession, and it necessitates prioritization in spending. But the judicial fund did not recoup the cuts that were made years before, leaving us with a deficit to begin with. I don’t propose another increase in court costs and fees. The people have been taxed enough. We need to prioritize spending and with the emphasis on funding the judicial branch.
We are not getting adequate and reasonable funding now. That is what is required by the Constitution. I don’t submit that we could sue the other branches of government. But their job is to fund us. I don’t propose putting judges in charge of how much the judicial branch gets. But Article VI, Section 149 states basically that adequate and reasonable financing and adequate and reasonable appropriations be made by the Legislature. I am the chief administrative officer of the judicial branch, and it is my job to see that we have adequate and reasonable funding.
In 2001, we faced the largest budget cut to that date, $13 million. Last year alone we had a $25 million loss in funding. We’ve had a succession of budget cuts that have crippled the court system. So far this year, we’ve gotten several million put back already. It started at $16 million in cuts and has gotten down to $13.5 million.
When I came into office of chief justice in 2001, we were facing budget cuts of $13 million in 2002 and had to lay off some people, 198 employees. Since then, there have been 498 employees lost. We’re a branch of government, not just an agency. So it matters a lot when you lose 498 people. At the present time, we’re facing a cut of $13.5 million, and there could be 300 more layoffs. We’re facing a critical mass in our judicial system. We’ve lost $38 million in funding since 2001. The legislative branch, on the other hand, has lost only $2.6 million.
Our percentage of the general fund has gone from 11.32 percent to 5.9 percent since 2001. So, in about 12 years we’ve lost $38.5 million. Our percentage decrease has been 28 percent; whereas, the Legislature has only lost 7 percent, or $2.6 million. Their percentage of the general fund has gone from 2.97 percent to 2 percent. We went from 11.32 percent to 5.91, nearly 6 percent.
The general fund has grown by $499 million since 2001, 48 percent. Now, I know that the cost of Medicare and Medicaid has risen, but it seems like the only thing being cut is the judicial branch.
I can’t say why this thing is happening. The judicial branch in fiscal year 2012 collected $521 million, $175 million of which went to the general fund, $14 million to victims of crime, and $157 million to businesses and individuals — judgments recovered from other individuals or companies — and $171 million in child support. All of this was due to the collective efforts of a lot of people.
When you have less people to handle the problems, delays occur. We’ve had to cut by one day a week the days that circuit courts are open to the public. These court workers are not off of work; they just need to catch up on paperwork that can’t get filed otherwise. Clerks were having to have people work overtime to do the job, and these workers haven’t had a pay raise since 2008.
We’ve cut so much already the only options left are more layoffs. We’ve got now around $13.5 million in cuts, which means around 300 layoffs — the best estimate I can come up with. I know this by analysis of the needs of the court system. In many places we are below 50 percent staffing compared to other states in the Union and in proportion to our population.
The trial courts are hurting pretty bad. That’s where our concerns are, with the cuts in personnel such as juvenile probation officers and clerks. It is essential for the court to be working for businesses to collect from those who don’t pay their bills or those who don’t live up to their contracts. With the amount of money we collect for businesses, I’m sure they appreciate a well functioning court system.
I’ve talked to the governor, and he realizes the problems and is trying to find the funding. The Legislature is off for spring break, and I expect them to come back and find some solutions to these problems. I’ve talked with the Senate pro tem and the speaker of the House and the joint judicial budget committee. I’ve carried the message about the judicial branch to the rest of the government.
I’m getting good feedback. They’re starting to realize the problem, and it’s important that they do. There’s been a notable lack of realization. They need to prioritize their expenditures, and it is not for me to say how.
A lot of people express concern, and they are starting to understand when they go into the courthouse many of the desks are not filled that were previously filled, and when they’re facing a long line waiting for services.
Chris McFadyen is editorial director of Business Alabama.
Interview by Chris McFadyen