This past June 29 at 10 a.m., Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb announced she would resign her position as head of the state’s judicial branch of government on Aug. 1.
She mentioned, in particular, wishing to spend more personal time with her 87-yearold mother and 15-year-old daughter, Caitlin.
She also cited the burden of political demands. “Another statewide race at this point in time would require me to raise millions of dollars while endeavoring to appear and remain impartial and would require me to sacrifice precious time, which I could be spending with my family.
“Beginning the first day of August, I will be able to dedicate the bulk of my time to being a better wife, mother, daughter, grandmother, sister, church member, and friend,” Cobb said. She urged the governor to fill her position with “an experienced trial court judge.”
I reported last week that Gov. Bentley was inclined to do just that by naming his chief of staff, Chuck Malone, a retired circuit judge from Tuscaloosa, to the position. Now, I understand the governor plans to appoint Associate Supreme Court Justice Mike Bolin of Birmingham and name Malone to succeed Bolin.
Many political observers and some of Cobb’s close advisors found it interesting that Cobb, who has been expected to seek the governorship in 2014, would give up her position as Alabama’s chief justice if she intended to run for governor.
Most of her close friends were “surprised” by the announcement, which appeared to have taken place without seeking the opinion of anyone, except her husband Bill.
I was surprised at first, but not for long. Here’s why along with my suggested list of considerations she may have thought about in making her decision.
1. By January 2014, with a recession perhaps still hanging around and the possible further demise in state government funding, the state’s political landscape could have been altered enough to dictate mild political change.
2. With the possibility of judicial budgets continuing to shrink at the hands of the other two branches of government, its leader might have to exercise the system’s “nuclear option,” by suing the governor and the Legislature based on state constitutional language, which mandates the courts be funded adequately. That language states as follows in Article VI, Amendment No. 328: “Adequate and reasonable financing for the entire unified judicial system shall be provided. Adequate and reasonable appropriations shall be made by the Legislature for the entire unified judicial system, exclusive of probate courts and municipal courts.”
That option for the courts might even be necessary much sooner than expected because of the budgetary cuts already being made and those which will come in the next fiscal year beginning in October. A potential crisis which a chief justice might face because of these factors would not lend itself to a political candidacy. The 2011-12 general fund budget cut the court system’s funding to $138.8 million from $152 million. Courtrooms have been closed and hundreds have been laid off while the workload in the court system remains pretty much the same. In the past decade the judicial budgets have been slashed by over $60 million.
3. From the time Cobb retires next month until she must make a decision on whether or not to run for governor in 2014 will be at least two-and-a-half years. By that time her daughter will likely be in college and, at 57, Cobb will still be young enough to return to politics.
4. By that time she will also have had time to care for her mother and accomplish all of those other “to do” things she mentioned in her resignation remarks.
5. Her constituency will likely not have changed a lot and all those court officials and employees around the state will likely see a Gov. Cobb in the governor’s chair as having a sympathetic ear to the proposition of keeping the court doors open and the system adequately funded under the state constitution.
But the main reason I tend to think this isn’t the end of Sue Bell Cobb in politics is that I have not heard her utter the words “never again” and the fact that she pointedly uses the phrase “at this time” in her comments about her retirement. Also there was a quote I read on the internet this past week from an obvious supporter of hers who wrote: “Quitting just don’t sound like the Sue Bell I know.”