Alabama's courts ran out of money this week as the legislatiure, which controls the purse strings, debated other matters.
The last pay period for which funds were available to pay judges, court reporters and jurors ended Tuesday. State Supreme Court Chief Justice C. C. Torbert halted all civil jury trials Wednesday and all but the most pressing criminal trials.
"We're not bluffing," insisted a state court management official, who added that the plan now is to wait for a balky legislature to authorize payment from the general fund.
Legislators, locked in a special-session struggle over utility rates, have resisted attempts to interject court problems.
The crisis arose in the transition to a new unified court system adopted as a constitutional amendment that took effect in mid-January.
The new system provided such modern refinements as minimum standards for all levels of state justice. It also established a Department of Court Management in the Capital designed to assign judges as needed to avoid backlogs.
This major overhaul was fostered by then-state Chief Justice Howell Heflin, who received national praise for his accomplishment.
A change so major, however, bruised feelings all over the state as long-standing local preogatives were removed. Some of these preogatives used to include the running of courts by small-town mayors or their appointees.
Thus, when the legislature came to implementing and finding the plan, objections were raised - especially to the cost of the new judges.
Proponents replied that the new system would generate funds from fees and fines that previously had been lost into unaccounted-for county coffers.
Opponents then suggested that the courts simply pay for themselves and it was so agreed, the consensus at the time being that fines and fees to be paid into the state's general fund would provide more than enough money.
"Cash register justice," snorted Heflin later, but the budget adopted required the courts to be self-supporting.
In retrospect, court officials say now that when the system was three months old, in April, incoming funds were inadequate, but it was thought to be a transition problem.
By May, the state Budget Officer was writing warning letters to the Department of Court Management, but election-year politics efforts to get the subject before the legislature.
Circuit judges announced Wednesday that they would work without state pay. Most receive a small supplement from their counties. Court reporters have made no announcement, but some have already applied for other employment.
The legislature is in special session called by Gov. George C. Wallace to consider a package of bills that the governor says will control rapidly rising electricity bills. Opponents say the legislature is merely ammunition for his race for the U.S. Senate last year but the measures have caught the imagination of the Alabama electorate.
In addition, Wallace had warned that the general funds is already slightly overdrawn and had asked for an emergency tax package even before the plight of the courts became clear.
Observers note that Heflin, who sponsored the court reform, is a possible Wallace opponent for John J. Sparkman's Senate seat.
When the court funding question was brought up in a Wallace-dominated House committee Tuesday, the committee adjourned abruptly on a voice vote.
Court advocates in the Senate were unable to break into the debate on Wallace's utility package.
Meanwhile, civil cases may be referred to judges working without state pay instead of juries if litigants are willing. Officials plan to try most criminal cases but are not certain how they'll pay the jurors.
Procedures under consideration include asking for volunteers or writing IOUs.