A docket full: Judges request additional seat to handle growing caseload

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 21, 2007

District Judge Ron Jackson doesn&8217;t have to say much to show Shelby County&8217;s need for a new judgeship.

Overflowing dockets and jam-packed courtrooms do plenty to illustrate the strain inside the county courthouse, where just two circuit court judges preside over the state&8217;s fastest growing county.

&8220;The numbers make a great case,&8221; said Jackson, pointing to a caseload that&8217;s nearly doubled over the last three years.

Help may soon be on the way, thanks to a bill introduced Thursday in the Alabama House of Representatives.

The proposed legislation by State Rep. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) would add an additional district judge in Shelby County. It has the backing of the county&8217;s entire legislative delegation.

&8220;Shelby County&8217;s docket is just flooded,&8221; Ward said. &8220;It&8217;s overwhelmed with cases right now.&8221;

Ward&8217;s bill would place the new judgeship on 2008 election ballots, allowing the winner to take office in January of 2009.

But before it can become reality, Shelby County&8217;s new judgeship must be approved by the Alabama Administrative Office of the Courts, receive the blessing of Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb and pass through the State Legislature.

&8220;After talking with the AOC, we feel like we really have a good chance of getting this passed,&8221; Ward said.

Shelby County&8217;s presiding judge, Circuit Judge J. Michael Joiner, shares Ward&8217;s optimism.

&8220;We had an outstanding meeting with [Cobb],&8221; Joiner said. &8220;She asked some legitimate questions and she looked at the numbers.&8221;

While Shelby County&8217;s court system has been realizing the effects of rapid growth for years, Judge Jackson says the last three have seen a particularly large spike in caseload.

Traffic filings, which Jackson handles along with misdemeanors and small civil cases, have more than doubled from 6,940 in 2003 to 14,571 in 2006.

Shelby County&8217;s other district judge, Jim Kramer, handles juvenile court and small claims. He has seen a 42 percent increase in juvenile complaints during the same time span.

Jackson said the heavy workload has forced his office to look for more efficient means of operation, but a new judge is needed to provide each docket with the proper amount of attention.

&8220;We look for ways to expedite the process and still render a just and fair product,&8221; he said. &8220;But every case needs its time.&8221;

Another of Jackson&8217;s concerns, people lining the walls during court sessions for lack of seats, has been addressed with the construction of a new courtroom expected to open in early April