By Benjamin Bullard
The Cullman Times
The state’s highest judicial official urged local Republicans and state representatives to remember Alabama courts’ ongoing woes with slashed funding as they head into the election season, as well as into the coming 2012 legislative session.
Chief Justice Chuck Malone, who spoke before a crowd of Republicans Saturday as part of his statewide re-election bid, cautioned that the worst may not be over for a court system already poorer and more meagerly-staffed than an ever-increasing case load allows.
Malone said legislators, accounting officials and Gov. Robert Bentley haven’t assured judges at every level statewide that 2012 won’t be a repeat of 2011’s unprecedented budget cuts — or worse.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is a tough year,” Malone told the crowd. “I presented our budget [for 2011], and they said, ‘What would you do with a 25 percent cut [in 2012] from where you are right now?’ That would be devastating.”
Malone said even an additional year in which the court system maintained level funding — a strong possibility given the freezes that the state’s court system has already struggled under — would diminish the efficiency and services it currently provides.
“We’d still be laying off people,” he said. “As the third branch of government, we receive about 8.6 percent of the [state] general fund. We were asked, after I had made my proposal, what would be the effect of a 25 percent cut, and what would be the effect of level funding — all of which would require cuts for us,” Malone explained after the event. “For the third branch of government, we’re at a point where we can’t take it — I mean, we literally have to have an increase to get by.
“Level funding still puts us behind where we are now — we still have mandatory increases in our costs. I’m trying as best I can to let everybody understand how critical the court system is to our economy — because domestic lawsuits go on and on, and you still have people working while their personal lives are in disarray. You’ve got businesses that can’t collect on their debts; they can’t foreclose; they can’t do anything in a timely manner as they should. Not to mention on the criminal side; there are supposed to be speedy trials for the accused, and the DAs need funding on the state side. It affects us all.”
In spite of the dire discussion of where the state’s court system may be headed, Malone kept his tone upbeat as he asked local party members to choose him ahead of Republican Chief Justice opponents Charlie Graddick and Roy Moore in the March party primary. Malone is seeking his first elected term to the Chief Justice’s seat after being appointed by Gov. Robert Bentley in 2011.
“Let me just tell you — [your local elected representatives] have a job they have to do. My job is to educate; to show transparency in what we’re doing; to be responsible with what we’ve been given,” he said. “My wife keeps our checkbook, and she won’t even let me have a check. When I ask her for a check, she says, ‘What are you going to do with it; why are you buying it — and do we really need it?’ Those are fair questions, aren’t they? And that’s what our legislature has to do too.
“We’re going to be responsible with what we’re doing; we’re going to show our representatives and senators how to help solve this problem, and I ask for your vote,” said Malone. “We didn’t get here overnight, and I’m just going to tell you — it’s going to take a long time to change this, and we’re going to do it. I’m an optimist.”
* Benjamin Bullard can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by telephone at 734-2131, ext. 270.