Clerks from around the state met last week in Prattville, where they said they got grim news from Alabama Chief Justice Chuck Malone. The state’s judicial system — already slashed in fiscal 2012 — could face another 25 percent cut in funding next year.
“This is how bad things are: Level funding is the best possible outcome,” Calhoun County Circuit Clerk Ted Hooks said. “We’d still have to lay off people, and it’d have to come out of the clerk’s offices. There’s no other place.”
In fact, more than 100 people from clerk’s offices across the state could lose their jobs, even if Gov. Robert Bentley and the state Legislature fund the judicial system at the same level as this year’s $138.8 million budget, according to Hooks and Jane Smith, the circuit clerk for Madison County.
That’s because the judicial system is burdened with mandatory expense increases each year, officials with the chief justice’s office said.
Angi Smith, the campaign manager for Malone, agreed Monday layoffs would be a consequence of level funding or another cut in judicial system funding.
But clerks’ offices in the state already are operating below the workforce levels a non-profit group suggested for Alabama courthouses, officials said. The National Center for State Courts calculated how many staffers Alabama circuit clerks’ offices need based on caseloads in a 2009 study. The independent, non-profit group — supported by states, by federal grants and contracts, and by corporate and private donations — conducts research on state court systems.
“The clerk’s offices have been going through the pain and the layoffs since October,” said Dean Hartzog, the Administrative Office of Courts’ public information officer.
He noted that most of the state’s courthouses are operating at 30 percent to 40 percent below the employment thresholds recommended by the National Center for State Courts.
Talladega County’s is one of those courthouses — it operates with 14 employees, seven positions fewer than full staff.
“It is kind of a bleak outlook,” Talladega Circuit Clerk Clarence Haynes said. “When there’s no way … to support operations, what do you do?”
He noted that many courthouses, including Calhoun County’s, have it even worse, after this fiscal year’s $13.2 million budget cut forced the layoffs of more than half of the staffs last summer.
Hooks lost 13 of his 25 employees, paring a courthouse staff that usually operates with 20 or more positions to a mere 12.
A Star reporter tried to obtain the exact numbers of staffing levels at the Calhoun County Courthouse over the years, but Hooks didn’t have access to them. Those records are maintained by the state. But a human resource official at the Administrative Office of Courts said “there was no way in the world,” she’d be able to quickly obtain those records.
In Calhoun County, the courthouse layoffs have caused immense paper backlogs, the closing of the clerk’s offices on Fridays and so much stress that Hooks has recently decided to not run for re-election in the March primary. (The clerk’s offices will reopen on Fridays beginning Jan. 20 to accommodate absentee voters, Hooks said.)
“We’re already about 44 percent of what we actually need,” the Calhoun County circuit clerk said. “It’s absolutely — we’d almost have to lock the doors. I just can’t imagine any more layoffs.”
Things aren’t much better in Madison County, Jane Smith said, where the staffing level for her offices are the second-lowest in the state.
The National Center for State Courts’ manpower study shows that Smith should have 65 employees working to ensure operations at the Madison County Courthouse run smoothly. She said she’s done with several positions fewer than that for years. Now — after losing eight staffers in the face of 2012’s cuts, Smith has 25 state-funded employees, and local revenue-generating measures help pay for a handful of other workers.
Like Hooks, Smith can’t imagine how she’ll keep her courthouse open if the funding is cut or remains level next year.
Already, backlogs in the Madison County court system are forcing residents who seek divorces to wait between 18 and 24 months before their divorces are legal, Smith said. It used to take six months.
“I think we are eventually looking at closing the courts,” she said. “What other option do we have?”
The chief justice has another option, according to his campaign manager. Angi Smith said Malone has come up with a budget that restores some of the lost jobs to the clerk’s offices across the state.
His budget asks for an increase over this year’s funding that would “return circuit clerk workforce at 70 percent staffing levels,” Angi Smith said.
But the campaign manager Tuesday said she couldn’t provide an exact number for the amount of money that Malone is requesting for the unified judicial system in 2013.
When pressed, Angi Smith — despite having touted Malone’s transparent, fiscally responsible budget solution — said she was unable to give a single, “accurate” number that summed up the total of what Malone is asking for but that it amounts to “keeping doors open in courthouses.”
Still, she also noted that the chief justice has promised to live with what legislators decide to give him — he won’t sue for more money or advocate raising taxes no matter what, Angi Smith said.
“It’s the worst possible time for budgets and the courts,” Hooks said. “I really had high hopes they might have worked something out.”
Asked whether the governor was concerned about the condition of the state’s judicial system and clerk’s offices, a spokeswoman for Bentley replied that the governor and finance director were working to put together a budget that supports the essential functions of state government.
“It is too early to talk about specifics,” spokeswoman Jennifer Ardis said in an email.
Smith the Madison County clerk said she just hopes something will be done before things get worse.
“This is the worst that we’ve seen it; it’s absolutely surreal,” she said. “The public should be upset. This shouldn’t be acceptable.”
Star staff writer Cameron Steele: 256-235-3562.