Alabama Chief Justice to resign, cites budget pressures & legislature’s failure to change judicial election system

Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb announced June 29 would resign effective August 1. In her announcement Cobb cited budget constrains and her disappointment in the legislature’s failure to change the state’s partisan judicial elections to nonpartisan ones.

This decision has been infinitely more difficult because of the inadequate funding budgeted by the Legislature for our judicial system. I desperately wanted to depart leaving the system on better financial footing than when I came.

Although I look at numerous accomplishments which have been achieved during the last four and one-half years, one of my keenest disappointments has been my inability to convince the members of the Legislature to improve the method in which judges are selected in our state. For three legislative sessions, I worked with fine legislators such as former Representative Jeff McLaughlin, to change our partisan, costly judicial election method. Although our state has had the most expensive appellate court races in the country with Alabama appellate candidates raising $41 million over a nine year period compared to a grand total of $7,500 in our sister state of Florida, Republicans and Democrats alike refused to remove partisan labels on judicial races.

Alabama appellate court judges should be selected either on merit and retained or rejected by a vote of all the people, or at least campaign without the added political emphasis of party labels. On this issue, I agree with the generalization penned by Author Jim Harrison, “We are at the mercy of political forces which are always self-serving and dead wrong.” To do otherwise is to perpetuate the public perception that judges are selected more on campaign contributions than on ability.

Since Chief Justice Cobb took office in 2007, several legislative efforts had been launched to enact the sort of nonpartisan and/or merit selection system she sought. While some passed their initial committees, none ever achieved passage in a single chamber.

2011

HB 340 Provides for nonpartisan election of circuit and district judges. Died in House Constitution, Campaigns, and Elections Committee.

2010

HB 443 (Constitutional Amendment) AS AMENDED: Creates judicial vacancy commissions for the filling of judicial office vacancies, except those judicial circuits having judicial vacancy commissions provided by local constitutional amendments to the Constitution. Provides that if a local constitutional amendment creating a judicial vacancy commission is repealed, the county would be subject to the statewide judicial vacancy process in this amendment. Increases the maximum age at which a person may be elected or appointed to a judicial office from 70 to 72. Approved as amended by House Judiciary Committee 2/11/10. Postponed indefinitely on House floor 4/14/10.

HB 542 Requires the nonpartisan election of Circuit, District, and all appellate court Judges. Died in House Constitution and Elections Committee.

HB 680 Permits but does not require nonpartisan election of circuit and district court judges. Allows counties to “opt in” when a majority of circuit court judges submit a petition to their county commission. Died in House Constitution and Elections Committee.

SB 330 (Constitutional Amendment) Enacts a statewide plan establishing judicial vacancy commissions for the filling of judicial office vacancies, except those judicial circuits having judicial vacancy commissions provided by local constitutional amendments to the Constitution. Provides if a local constitutional amendment creating a judicial vacancy commission is repealed, the county would be subject to the statewide judicial vacancy process in this amendment. Died in Senate Judiciary Committee.

SB 561 Permits but does not require nonpartisan election of circuit and district court judges. Allows counties to “opt in” when a majority of circuit court judges submit a petition to their county commission. Approved by Senate Constitution, Campaign Finance, Ethics, and Elections Committee 4/14/10. Indefinitely postponed by full Senate 4/14/10.

2009

HB 126 Provides for the nonpartisan election of candidates for state appellate judicial office and a corresponding special ballot for such elections. Provides that a reelection would be via retention election, rather than a contested election. Creates a judicial evaluation commission to evaluate performance of a state appellate judicial officer standing for reelection in a retention election and to recommend retention or not. Died in House Constitution and Elections Committee.

HB 127 Provides for the nonpartisan election of candidates for state appellate judicial office and a corresponding special ballot for such elections. Died in House Constitution and Elections Committee.

HB 548 Provides for the nonpartisan election of candidates for state appellate judicial office and a corresponding special ballot for such elections. Died in House Constitution and Elections Committee.

SB 100 (Constitutional Amendment) Requires merit selection to fill judicial vacancies due to resignation, death, etc. for all judges and justices that are not already under such plans through prior  amendments or local laws. Creates  corresponding commissions. No impact on means of re-election at end of respective terms. Approved by Senate Constitution, Campaign Finance, Ethics, and Elections Committee 3/10/09. Indefinitely postponed on Senate floor 5/14/09.

2008

HB 444 Requires the nonpartisan election of Circuit, District, and all appellate court Judges. Approved by House Constitution and Elections Committee 3/13/08. Indefinitely postponed on House floor 5/6/08.

HB 624 Requires nonpartisan election of candidates for Circuit and District Court judgeships. Died in House Constitution and Elections Committee.

2007

HB 474 Requires the nonpartisan election of Circuit, District, and all appellate court Judges. Died in House Constitution and Elections Committee.

HB 536 (Constitutional Amendment) Requires merit selection for all judges and justices that are not already under such plans through prior amendments or local laws. Creates corresponding commissions. No impact on means of re-election at end of respective terms. Died in House Judiciary Committee.

HB 605 Requires nonpartisan election of circuit and district court judgeships. Filing fee paid by the candidates to be deposited into the State General Fund, or candidate may file affidavit of indigence in lieu of payment of the filing fee. Died in House Constitution and Elections Committee.

HB 710 (Constitutional Amendment) Requires merit selection with retention elections for appellate court justices and judges. Before retention election, judge/justice to be reviewed by Judicial Evaluation Commission and information provided to voters. Deletes mandatory retirement age provisions. Died in n House Constitution and Elections Committee.

SB 357 (Constitutional Amendment) Requires merit selection to fill judicial vacancies due to resignation, death, etc. for all judges and justices that are not already under such plans through prior  amendments or local laws. Creates  corresponding commissions. No impact on means of re-election at end of respective terms. Approved by Senate Judiciary Committee  5/24/07. Indefinitely postponed on Senate floor 5/29/07.