SUMMARY: Budget documents show that the court system’s costs increased $66.3 million over the last 12 years, not 10, and that the appropriation for the court system grew by only $18.8 million in the same period. Cobb was off the mark in laying the entire cost at the feet of the 21st century Legislature. A small portion of the cost increases are due to retirement and personnel policies that were created back in 1977.
ANALYSIS: Times are clearly tough for Alabama’s judicial system. The 2012 General Fund budget cut the court system’s funding to $138.8 million from $152 million in the previous year, while the workload in the court system remains pretty much the same. In Calhoun County alone, the courthouse expects to lose more than half its staff to layoffs, due to the budget crunch.
Cobb cited the rising cost of the court system when she announced her early retirement from the Supreme Court earlier this week. Cobb said that the courts have picked up $66.3 million in new obligations over the last decade — based on new demands placed on the courts by the Legislature during the same period of time.
Documents from the court system suggest that the state’s courts have encountered $66.3 million in new annual obligations between fiscal 2001 and fiscal 2012. That’s actually 12 years, or possibly 11, depending on whether one considers the increases as starting in 2001 or 2002.
“However you count it, it’s definitely more than 10,” said Sharon Bivens, a fiscal analyst for the state’s Legislative Fiscal Office.
Most, but not all, of those costs were piled on by the Legislature in the 21st century, said the court system’s finance director, Bob Bradford.
Bradford provided The Star with a breakdown of the $66.3 million in increases. According to Bradford’s figures, the numbers include $44 million in salary increases, which includes pay raises for judges and circuit clerks, merit pay raises and cost-of-living adjustments.
The increases also include $10 million in raises to the court system’s contribution to employee retirement funds and health insurance. To take effect, Bradford said, each of those increases had to be approved by the Legislature, making them legislative mandates.
Rounding out the $66.3 million figure is $11.6 million for miscellaneous items, such as the $526,000 added annual cost of operating drug courts.
Bradford said all the listed increases count as mandates from the Legislature because they represent things that the law requires the court system to do.
But at least one of the listed costs wasn’t created by the courts in the past 10 years.
Since 2002, the court system's anuual payout to “supernumeraries” has grown by $1 million.
Some court officials — circuit clerks and court reporters — aren’t part of the state’s retirement system, Bradford said. Instead, at retirement age, they go into what’s known as “supernumerary status,” a sort of emeritus position that keeps them on the court’s payroll for life.
Bradford said he didn’t know the origin or purpose of the supernumerary system. He said state has been using the supernumerary system since at least 1977, when the state created a single, unified judicial department.
Joseph Colquitt, a professor of law at the University of Alabama, said he suspected the supernumeraries were a holdover from the pre-1970s judicial system, when every county had its own courts, creating what Colquitt called a “hodgepodge” of court systems.
“When I started working in the court system, there were quite a few supernumeraries,” said Colquitt, a retired judge who first took the bench in 1971. “There was no retirement system for judges, so this was the substitute, I suppose.”
Colquitt guessed that circuit clerks and court reporters must have somehow been left out of the retirement system when the courts were unified in 1977. But he said he was surprised that any supernumeraries were still around.
“You’re telling me something I didn’t know,” he said.
Because supernumeraries were around long before the 10-year period Cobb mentioned, the chief justice would seem to be at least $1 million off in her estimation of new court costs created by lawmakers.
Curiously, if Cobb had used the actual 10-year numbers, it wouldn’t have hurt her argument very much.
Bradford’s numbers show that from fiscal 2003 through fiscal 2012 — 10 full budget years — funding for the judicial system increased by only $10.7 million while legislatively mandated costs (including supernumeraries) increased $58.5. Either way — using 10-year or 12-year numbers — the court system winds up about $47 million in the hole.