Court system facing potential cuts

Published 12:25 pm Wednesday, April 13, 2011

It’s been said that the wheels of justice turn slowly. That could be truer if court offices across Alabama start closing one day a week as proposed by Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb on Tuesday.

Chilton County Circuit Clerk Glenn McGriff said he hopes that doesn’t happen here.

“All it’s going to do is bog down the court system. It’s just going to back everything up,” said McGriff, adding Chilton County has the third heaviest volume of district court cases in Alabama.

In 2010, there were about 1,000 small claims cases in Chilton County, 300 district civil cases, 2,500 district criminal cases, 470 circuit criminal cases, 2,400 warrants, 500 divorce cases, 300 child support cases, 350 juvenile cases and 300-plus circuit civil cases, reports McGriff. In addition, more than 8,000 traffic tickets were issued.

“This is a very serious issue,” McGriff said. “You’re touching a lot of lives when you start messing with the judicial system…the public, attorneys, law enforcement, victims — it’s a wide scope of people.”

Cobb’s order will give presiding circuit judges the authority to decide whether offices should be closed one day per week.

According to Cobb, even though offices would be closed to the public, employees would still report to work. But jury weeks for civil trials will be slashed in half, and those for criminal trials will be cut by one-fourth.

McGriff said he currently has eight employees — six paid by the state and two paid out of the clerk’s fund. They have not had a raise in four years, he said.

Overall, the 19th Judicial Circuit, which comprises Chilton, Elmore and Autauga counties, is currently at 60 percent staff, McGriff estimated.

“Cases keep increasing, but we don’t have any help,” he said. “My ladies work hard; sometimes they work weekends or take work home because they are doing all they can to stay up.”

Around 2003, the local clerk’s office began closing for lunch from 12-1 p.m. due to staff cuts. Now, it is bracing for another storm of cuts that could result in as many as 300 layoffs statewide by Oct. 1 if the proposed General Fund budget is enacted.

McGriff, formerly the Chilton County Tax Assessor, said that in his 22 years as an elected official he has never had to lay anybody off.

“If we get cut anymore, it’s really going to be hard,” he said. “The public’s going to have to be patient with us, and we’re going to have to be patient too. It’s not going to be easy.”

McGriff said he hopes additional sources of revenue can be found in time to prevent some of the cuts.

“I’ve done some serious praying about it,” he said.