Archive for Sunday, April 28, 2002

Juries out in Alabama civil trials

Funding feud between governor, chief justice leads to finger-pointing

April 28, 2002

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— The Constitution guarantees the right to trial by jury, but that isn't stopping Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore from halting jury trials Monday to save money.

Moore, known for his fights to post the Ten Commandments in public buildings, is now sparring with the governor and Legislature over funding for the courts.

With no resolution in sight, Moore ordered an end to jury hearings in civil court until Oct. 1 and restricted criminal jury trials to two weeks. His decision has forced delays in everything from million-dollar lawsuits to a long-awaited murder trial from a 1963 church bombing.

"It's going to be devastating," said Circuit Judge Charles Price, who predicts a rapid backlog.

Sheriffs are worried about jails, many already overcrowded, overflowing with defendants who can't go to trial. Police fear judges, seeking to relieve the backlog, will reduce bonds for defendants who pose a serious risk to the community. And crime victims are angry about waiting longer for justice.

"It's as upsetting as all get-out," said Bobby Hilyer of Chilton County. The woman accused of killing his son was supposed to go on trial May 6, but the case has been postponed indefinitely.

"I don't see how you can shut down the courts in the whole state," Hilyer said.

Moore says the courts are caught in a "fiscal crisis" and the cutbacks will get worse after Oct. 1. That's when Alabama's judges, already among the highest-paid in the nation, get a new pay raise.

Gov. Don Siegelman calls the halt to trials "outrageous," but he refuses to provide more money when most of state government, including the public school system, is coping with shrinking tax revenue.

"All branches of government are under tight fiscal constraints," he said.

Court systems in several other states are grappling with financial problems because of the national economic downturn, but others have found ways to keep the wheels of justice turning. In Kansas, the Supreme Court imposed emergency fees, including a $50 increase in the $25 marriage license. In Florida, jobs went unfilled and construction projects got delayed. In South Carolina, the Legislature is considering raising fees to prevent cutbacks.

In Alabama, defendants are already filing legal papers saying they are being denied their constitutional right to a speedy trial before a jury.

"Without jury trials, I know of no way these rights can be guaranteed to the public we serve," Circuit Judge Ferrill McRae said.

It wouldn't seem that money for trials would be a problem: Appropriations for Alabama's trial courts have gone up 31 percent since 1998. But part of the increase went to pay raises for judges. Alabama's Supreme Court justices rank among the highest paid in the country and trial court judges finish near the middle in a state that ranked 44th last year in average annual income, at $23,471, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

The budget fight involves only 2 percent of the state appropriation for the trial courts.

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