- The Washington Times - Monday, April 29, 2002

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) The Constitution guarantees the right to trial by jury, but that isn't stopping Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore from halting jury trials today to save money.
Chief Justice Moore, known for his fights to post the Ten Commandments in public buildings, is now sparring with the governor and Legislature over funding for the courts.
With no resolution in sight, Chief Justice Moore ordered an end to jury hearings in civil court until Oct. 1 and restricted criminal jury trials to two weeks. His decision has forced delays in everything from million-dollar lawsuits to a long-awaited murder trial from a 1963 church bombing.
"It's going to be devastating," said Circuit Judge Charles Price, who predicts a rapid backlog.
Sheriffs are worried about jails, many of them already overcrowded and overflowing with defendants who can't go to trial. Police fear that judges, seeking to relieve the backlog, will reduce bonds for defendants who pose a serious risk to the community. And crime victims are angry about waiting longer for justice.
"It's as upsetting as all get-out," said Bobby Hilyer of Chilton County. The woman accused of killing his son was supposed to go on trial May 6, but the case has been postponed indefinitely.
"I don't see how you can shut down the courts in the whole state," Mr. Hilyer said.
Chief Justice Moore said the courts are caught in a "fiscal crisis" and the cutbacks will get worse after Oct. 1. That's when Alabama's judges, already among the highest-paid in the nation, get a new pay raise.
Gov. Don Siegelman, a Democrat, calls the halt to trials "outrageous," but he refuses to provide more money when most of state government, including the public school system, is coping with shrinking tax revenue.
"All branches of government are under tight fiscal constraints," he said.
Court systems in several other states are grappling with financial problems caused by the national economic downturn, but others have found ways to keep the wheels of justice turning. In Kansas, the Supreme Court imposed emergency fees, including a $50 increase in the $25 marriage license. In Florida, jobs went unfilled and construction projects got delayed. In South Carolina, the Legislature is considering raising fees to prevent cutbacks.
In Alabama, defendants already are filing legal papers saying they are being denied their constitutional right to a speedy trial before a jury.
"Without jury trials, I know of no way these rights can be guaranteed to the public we serve," Circuit Judge Ferrill McRae said.
It wouldn't seem that money for trials would be a problem: Appropriations for Alabama's trial courts have risen 31 percent since 1998. But part of the increase went to pay raises for judges. Alabama's Supreme Court justices rank among the highest paid in the country, but trial court judges finish near the middle in a state that ranked 44th last year in average annual income, at $23,471, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
The budget fight involves only 2 percent of the state appropriation for the trial courts. The Legislature gave the trial courts $122 million for this fiscal year, but that's $2.7 million short of what the chief justice and state court administrator Rich Hobson say is necessary.
The Legislature ended its annual session last week without appropriating more money. Legislators argue that the court system hasn't done enough to cut expenses and hasn't justified the need for more money.

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