Presiding judge discusses digital record-keeping, addiction

At the Chamber breakfast, from left, Chris Singleton, Dennis Bilbo and Judge Bert Rice.

Judge Bert Rice, the presiding circuit court judge for the Escambia County Judicial Circuit, pointed out last week that Alabama leads the nation in two separate but related statistics. One, involving the state’s courts, he is proud of; the other, which is helping drive an increase in criminal cases heard in those courts, is not a source of pride.

“One of the best things about Alabama’s courts is because of something that was done back in the 1970s, before all our technology came out,” Rice told a group of about two dozen local business and industry leaders during the July 20 session of Atmore Area Chamber of Commerce’s monthly Breakfast With an Elected Official series. “We are the only state in the nation that has a court system that is all digital, the only state-of-the-art system where all the court records have been digitized.”

Rice, who became Atmore Municipal Court Judge in November of 1977 and has served on the judicial bench at some level for almost 40 years, said the amount of filing space that has been saved by that digitization is mind-boggling.

“We have somewhere pushing half a billion pages of (court) documents,” he said. “I tried to figure out the shelf space required, and it comes to almost 17 miles of shelf space that we don’t have because our records have been digitized.”

He credited former Senator and Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Howell Heflin and former Judge Hugh Rozelle for helping push the centralization and digitization of the state’s courts.

“They laid the foundation,” he said. “When I’m at a conference or function outside the state, judges from other states will say, ‘Alabama does that?’ They are all amazed that we are the only state that has that.”

The other area in which Alabama is the national leader is a lot less positive.

“We are a lot busier now than we’ve ever been, and a lot is driven by the criminal side,” he began. “It used to be that the only illegal substance you heard about was somebody had a little too much to drink and got a DUI or was publicly intoxicated. I wish it was that way again, but it’s not.

“Alabama leads the nation in opiate addiction. Virtually every day, I and the other judges see addiction. Hundreds of people appear in drug court every session. But it’s not just here; it’s everywhere. The majority of the criminal cases we see are either possessing or selling illegal drugs, or stealing to support a drug habit. We see every day how the drug culture has influenced our lives.”

Rice then fielded questions from his audience and briefly discussed the jury selection process, the administrative duties of the presiding judge and other issues before bringing his presentation to a close.