Officials say neither courthouse can close
by Will Heath
Apr 14, 2011 | 3648 views |  1 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
ST. CLAIR COUNTY — Officials said Thursday they do not believe either of the county’s two courthouses will be forced to close, in spite of a chief justice’s order.

On Tuesday, Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb signed an order that, among other things, directed counties with multiple courthouses to consolidate court offices and courtrooms into one courthouse. By constitutional amendment, St. Clair County has two county seats — in Ashville and Pell City — with mirroring county facilities in each place, including courthouses.

The county’s presiding circuit judge, Charles Robinson, said he and the rest of the judiciary have met about the issue and have no plans to close either location.

“We feel that, due to the fact that in 1901 a constitutional amendment was passed creating the Pell City Courthouse as an additional county seat in St. Clair County, that neither of these courthouses can be closed, and we’re not planning on closing them,” Robinson said. “We all are under the opinion about these two courthouses that, legally, they can’t be closed by anybody, except maybe by constitutional amendment, which is what authorized them to begin with. I don’t think our courthouses are going to be closed.”

Both courthouses represent a sizeable investment on the county’s part, as well. Work was just finished on a $6 million renovation on the Ashville Courthouse, and the Pell City Courthouse underwent a $5.5 million renovation just over a decade ago.

County Commission Chairman Stan Batemon said that if either location closed, more money would have to be spent to expand the facility that remained open.

“Neither was designed to have all our court in,” he said. “It costs x number of dollars because you’ve got to have x number of people to handle those cases and those cases are not going away.

“It does cost us to have to maintain two facilities, but we’ve grown so much that it would be really difficult to have all of court in either of those buildings.”

Cobb’s order came in the wake of budget cuts. According to an Associated Press report, the trial courts' appropriation for fiscal 2011 had been $154.8 million, but was cut 2 percent to $152 million due to the state bringing in less tax revenue than expected. Most other state programs got cut 15 percent by the governor.

For the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, the Legislature is considering appropriating $138.9 million for the trial courts, a nearly $16 million reduction from what judges had been expecting this year.

The chief justice’s order also suggested closing court offices on Fridays, something Circuit Clerk Annette Hall said her office has no plans to do.

“Fridays are the days people get paid, and if they’re going to make payments, it’s going to be on a Friday,” said Hall. “I agree that at this time it’s in the best interest of the public that we remain open in both locations.”

Batemon said he does not believe consolidating courthouses will save the county anything.

“The only place we can see we would save considerable money by consolidating a facility would be having one jail,” he said. “We can’t save a lot of money by having one courthouse. Plus, if you shut one down and have to build onto another one, you’d have to take care of that extra space.”

Cobb’s order also included cancellation of 50 percent of all civil jury trials, and 20 percent of criminal trials. According to Robinson, that process has already begun.

“We have canceled two weeks of civil jury trial in Pell City, and one week of criminal jury trials in Pell City,” he said. “That leaves two weeks of jury trial in Pell City and two weeks in Ashville, and leaves two weeks of criminal in Pell City and two weeks in Ashville. In effect, we canceled 33 percent of our civil jury trials and 20 percent of criminal jury trials.

“I don’t know what’s going to be the result of all this.”

Contact Will Heath at wheath@thestclairtimes.com.