First, let me say that this entry is not meant as a criticism of Alabama’s judicial system. In my experience, the vast majority of our judges and court personnel are deeply dedicated to providing a fair and efficient system of justice despite increasingly limited resources. I am simply writing to discuss three current ideas aimed at improving our system. 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
The topic of non-partisan judicial races has been a frequent issue before our legislature in the last few years. A bill to make such elections non-partisan has been introduced yearly since 2004. Yet, each year political moves seem to trump real debate. 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.
In her recent State of the Judiciary address, Chief Justice Cobb mentioned Alabama’s two-tier system of trial courts. Basically, 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. However, 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. 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? At present, many of our courts face a crisis of too few resources and too few judges. I have written previously about the funding crisis in our courts as well as the lack of Circuit Judges in Madison County. Modifying our system to reduce this unnecessary overlap would certainly help our courts.
Finally, Alabama voters presently elect the Chief Justice of our Supreme Court as well as all 8 associate justices in statewide elections. On several occasions, proposals have been made to elect the 8 associate justices by district. Does our current system allow a candidate to neglect certain areas of the state and focus on major media areas when running for office? Does it allow a candidate with very little practical experience simply to run an advertising campaign statewide? By focusing on districts, it would seem more likely that the successful candidate had developed a reputation for quality legal skills within their local community. It might lessen the ability of less qualified candidates to gain election through mass advertising efforts aimed simply at building name recognition. Moreover, it could provide local courts in that district with a specific justice who could respond to emergency issues.