Alabama State of the Judiciary: “civilized society depends on the Court System, and the Court System depends upon you, the Legislative branch”

The National Center for State Courts has an archive of 2011, 2010, and previous years State of the Judiciary addresses located here.

Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb gave the Alabama State of the Judiciary on March 8. Under HJR 4 of 2011, the legislature met in joint session that day to hear the address. Such speeches are rarities in Alabama; the state went two decades (1989-2008) without such an address. A 1996 effort to institutionalize the practice and automatically invite the Chief Justice to address the legislature annually (HJR 68 of 1996) was adopted by the House by died in the Senate.

Because the Chief Justice’s speech followed immediately after the Governor’s State of the State, Alabama was the third state to have all three branches hear the State of the Judiciary Address (the other two were New Mexico and Wyoming).

Highlights of the the Chief Justice’s speech (full text here) included:

The Governor gave us a full dose of reality regarding the current budget situation. The outlook is bleak. Proration is upon us. Governor Bentley is willing to make a number of difficult decisions which will help close the gaping hole in the General Fund.

The Court System at all levels must be adequately funded. Simply put, civilized society depends on the Court System, and the Court System depends upon you, the Legislative branch, to fund us so that we can carry out our constitutional duties.

There are numerous accomplishments of the appellate and trial courts I could discuss with you today. I will highlight only three:
(1) The Supreme Court disposed of eleven percent more cases than were filed last year. This is a historic achievement.
(2) The Court of Criminal Appeals once again has the second highest caseload per judge in the nation.
(3) The Court of Civil Appeals has reduced the resolution of crucially important termination of parental rights cases to fifty-six days after submission to the Court.

I hope that this Legislature will join with the Governor and me in bringing the citizens’ urgent fiscal needs in line with the need for public safety and craft a sentencing policy which can accomplish both.

Let me be absolutely clear: we must lock up violent and serious offenders for lengthy sentences so they cannot continue to harm innocent people. However, where nonviolent offenders are concerned, there is an alternative to the costly cycle of crime, incarceration, and reoffending. We need to be certain we are locking up those of whom we are afraid – not just those with whom we are mad.

The ongoing success of the Alabama Sentencing Commission in achieving its mission demonstrates the power of cooperation in providing Alabama with a safer, more cost efficient criminal justice system.

As Chief Justice, following the recommendations of the Alabama Sentencing Commission, I made the statewide replication of model drug courts a top priority…The expansion and implementation of community corrections programs is also imperative in order to “stop the revolving door.”

History was made in 2010. With the funding provided by our concerned out-of-state partners, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) and the State Justice Institute, and with support from the Pew Center on the States, I was able to use my authority as administrative head of the trial courts to order all judges having jurisdiction over criminal felony offenders to attend a sentencing workshop at the Alabama Judicial College.

Change is never easy, but change is essential. We must modify our laws in a way that enhances public safety and focuses limited tax dollars on programs that reduce recidivism, thereby stopping the revolving door.

As Chief Justice, I cannot “snap my fingers” and instantly improve life for the citizens of our state. I can, however, use whatever power or influence I have to encourage meaningful change that is proven to make communities safer.

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