Judge Cobb could use dose of Pea River logic

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 16, 2011

Alabama Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb’s administrative order issued Tuesday makes me think one thing: She could use a good dose of Morris McCullough’s logic.

Mr. McCullough ran an old-fashioned grocery store on the court square in Elba back in the dark ages when Double Bubble still cost a penny. Many of his customers did business on credit.

His wife was a teacher, and the couple had a retreat at Panama City Beach. People used to ask him why he didn’t close and celebrate the Fourth of July there with her.

His answer went something like this.

“First of all, we close on Sundays, so that’s 52 days a year, plus Christmas. That ought to be enough for anybody.

“And if some folks came by to pay their bill on the Fourth of July and we weren’t here, no telling when you’d see them again,” he said, although I’m certain his language was much more colorful.

I couldn’t help thinking about that philosophy when Judge Cobb authorized circuit judges to close the offices of circuit judges, district judges, circuit clerks and juvenile probation on Fridays, in light of recent budget cuts.

You can stand in the courthouse lobby all day long on any given day and watch people make payments at the clerk’s office – fines, court fees, court-ordered child support, etc.

Now just imagine that the judges’ and clerk’s offices are closed to the public on Friday, even though court employees would still be required to report to work.

So John Doe gets paid on Friday, cashes his check and stops by the courthouse to make a payment toward his fine. Mr. Doe finds the office closed, but hears people in the office. He leaves to start his weekend with more money jingling in his pocket than he expected.

Can’t you hear the excuse now?

“I went by to pay ‘em, but they were closed. I reckon they don’t want my money.”

Here in Covington County, 15 percent proration of the state’s General Fund budget has not cost any court employees their jobs. Subsequently, presiding Circuit Judge Ashley McKathan said local offices won’t close on Fridays now. However, he cautioned, things could change in October if the system is forced to absorb further cuts.

The chief justice also ordered reductions in the number of jury terms; ordered court officers to encourage jurors to decline their compensation; and to close courtrooms in counties with multiple courthouses.

On the surface, it appears her order will save little money, but will slow court processes in an already burdened system. Too bad no one explained to her how limiting access might also cost money in the way of unpaid fees and fines.