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State officials trade blame for court shutdown

BNI Newswire

Late Wednesday afternoon, Gov. Don Siegelman released $500,000 from a discretionary fund so the state could resume jury trials, but that amount doesn’t cover the court system’s budget shortfall.

Top officials continued trading blame Wednesday for the apparent financial shortfall that has halted civil jury trials in the state, local judges planned to meet to discuss temporary solutions to the problem.

Chief Justice Roy Moore, who suspended all civil and most criminal jury trials on Monday, has said the governor promised "to help resolve the crisis if funds became available."

"This was expected since the administrative director of courts had initially brought suit even before the fiscal year began over the Constitutional mandate upon the governor and the Legislature to provide an adequate budget for the court system," Moore said in a statement this week.

Moore has basically rebuffed the offer of a $500,000 loan from Siegelman, instead reiterating that the court system needs $1.2 million to be able to function properly for the rest of the fiscal year.

"I now call upon the governor to release $1.2 million needed to resume jury trials and proper security of court bailiffs from the departmental emergency fund which presently maintains a balance of $1,669,644. I would remind the governor that these are taxpayers’ funds which do not belong to him and should be returned to the people in an emergency situation, not as a loan as was indicated in press accounts."

But state Finance Director Henry Mabry, Siegelman’s appointee, on Wednesday told The Associated Press that discretionary raises given to court employees, along with orders for new computers a week after cutbacks were announced, were "irresponsible."

While it isn’t clear how or when the funding crisis will be resolved, trial judges are trying to work out their own solutions. Circuit Judge Tom Young of Alexander City, one of three judges in the four-county circuit that includes Tallapoosa, said he and judges Ray Martin and Howard Bryan will meet tonight to discuss possible solutions.

"We’ve already hammered some things out," Young said. "We’re just trying to keep the system going."

Three criminal trials in the circuit will be affected – those in Dadeville, Randolph County and Chambers County, Young said. Those terms typically last about two weeks each.

The Administrative Office of Courts has said some circuits could have limited criminal jury trial sessions, so Young and other judges are trying to schedule the most efficient times for those.

"But that’s still just a Band-Aid," Young said.

Some counties have offered to help pay for jury terms, but the Tallapoosa County Commission on Monday voted to allow the state to work out the funding problems.

District Attorney Randall Houston, who covers Elmore and Chilton counties, said he, too, has juggled his schedule to keep the courts running through the summer of cutbacks.

"We’re having to work really hard to stay current, so we make sure we don’t miss anything," Houston said. "But, we’re gearing up to do it.