First, let me say this post is not meant as a criticism of Alabama’s judicial system. The vast majority of our judges and court personnel are deeply dedicated to providing a fair and efficient system of justice despite periodic budget or political issues.
We should always discuss ways to improve the system. Here are three discussion ideas aimed at improving our courts. What are these ideas?
- ELECT JUDGES THROUGH NON-PARTISAN RACES
- MODIFY ALABAMA’S CURRENT TWO-TIER SYSTEM OF TRIAL COURTS
- ELECT ASSOCIATE JUSTICES OF THE ALABAMA SUPREME COURT BY DISTRICT
Proposal One: Require Non-Partisan Judicial Elections. This is not a new issue. Legislators have introduced non-partisan judicial election bills yearly since 2004. Yet, political moves trump real debate every single year. Do we really want judges who must worry about partisan politics? Asked another way, do we want to risk electing the most partisan and political people as judges? Or, do we want to elect the people most qualified to listen and apply the law without agenda? In 2007, Birmingham attorney Thomas Wells (who recently completed a term as President of The American Bar Association) wrote an article concerning our current system for The Birmingham News. While Wells favors a pure merit selection system for judges, his article notes many of the problems with our current, highly partisan, method of electing judges.
Proposal Two: Modify Alabama’s Two-Tier System Of Trial Courts. In her recent State of the Judiciary address, Chief Justice Cobb mentioned Alabama’s two-tier system of trial courts. Under our two-tier system, small cases are often handled in the District Court. Larger civil cases and other matters are handled by the Circuit Court. What’s the problem? In many situations, the losing party in District Court can simply appeal to Circuit Court and have a second chance to win their case from the beginning. The loser gets a free do-over. What does a decision mean if the loser can simply start fresh in a new court? Is it efficient to allow a second, new and full, trial process without consideration of the earlier decision? No. It’s a waste of money and other resources. Our courts regularly face a budget crisis of too few resources and too few judges. Why make it worse? I have written previously about the funding crisis in our courts as well as the lack of Circuit Judges in Madison County. We should modify our system to reduce this needless overlap.
Proposal Three: Elect Associate Supreme Court Justices By District. Alabama voters presently elect the Chief Justice of our Supreme Court as well as all 8 associate justices in statewide elections. Does our current system allow a candidate to neglect certain areas of the state and focus on major media areas when running for office? Absolutely. Candidates spend their valuable money and resources advertising in the few major media markets. Does our current system allow a candidate with very little practical experience to win based simply on a statewide advertising campaign? Absolutely. We need the judge with the right skill and temperament rather than the partisan with the most money. A district-based limit emphasizes local reputation for legal skills over big money television advertising. Candidates would need to campaign locally. Candidates would need support from local lawyers who know what it takes for trials and appeals. Districts are beneficial beyond the election as well. District-based associate justices provide local courts with a ready appellate judge for emergency issues.