News

In the first “State of the Judiciary” speech given to the General Assembly since 2001, North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin invoked the Magna Carta, introduced lawmakers to the judiciary’s work during challenging economic times and urged them to appreciate the need for better funding in order to ensure the integrity of the state’s judicial system.

“Think about what it will mean if the people of this great State cannot rely on us to promptly administer justice,” Martin said.

“How can we explain that to the victims of violent crime and their families? How can we explain that to the small-business owners who need a contract dispute resolved in order to keep their store open and avoid bankruptcy? How can we explain that to the family that lost a loved one because of a drunk driver? We must be able to provide them with justice.”

Martin recognized that all branches of government had sustained cuts during the recession, but noted that court budget deficiencies had existed long before.

“Even before the start of the Great Recession, in 2007, North Carolina ranked 49th out of 50 states in terms
of per capita spending on the judicial branch,” Martin said. “Five years later, in 2012, we ranked 45th out
of the 50 states using the same source data as corroborated by the highly-respected National
Center for State Courts.”

The Chief Justice compared the courts budget to the budgets of other critical entities. “By way of illustration, one county’s annual budget for the public school system in fiscal year 2014-15 is nearly $1.5 billion,” he said. “The entire justice system budget, for all 100 counties, is only $464 million. This means that the entire Judicial Branch budget is less than one-third of the Wake County Public School System’s budget.”

The courts have nonetheless been doing yeoman’s work to make do with less, he added, and offered a number of illustrations.

Personnel cuts have left the courts understaffed by 536 positions, per studies by the National Center for State Courts, Martin noted.

“I am told that assistant clerks and court employees are taking second and even third jobs to make ends meet,” he said. “Magistrates and assistant clerks of court pitched in to help each other when they did not have enough staff to get the work done. Deputy Sheriffs and security guards also lent a hand while vigilantly protecting our courthouses from those who would do us harm.”

Martin also pointed out other efficiencies achieved in procurement and technology that he hoped could be extended statewide.  For example:

Our courts in Alamance County offer another prime example of efficiency through innovation. That Judicial District offers a unique option for domestic violence victims. They can electronically file for a protective order and have a remote video hearing with a judge, all from a safe and secure location. Protective orders are then sent electronically to the Sheriff for service on the alleged abuser. This project has already won two national public sector innovation awards.

He added that the Administrative Office of the Courts was now in the process of developing a master plan for instituting electronic filing in courts statewide.

He also recognized the work of family courts, which have often teetered on the chopping block:

Family courts are operating in a fourth of the state, providing effective case management to almost half of the State’s citizens. The median age of a pending domestic case in a Family Court District on December 31, 2014 was 113 days as compared to 392 days in non-Family Court Districts. Family Courts are an example of specialty courts that are working to process cases through the court system in a timely manner, while helping bring closure and stability to families.

But the judicial system’s efforts at making do with less are not enough to ensure that the fair and impartial administration of justice occurs in North Carolina.

That can be seen in delays in criminal trials, he said.

In order to bring a felony criminal case to trial, among other things, a grand jury indictment must be returned and often times lab results must be obtained. I am told that delays of more than a year have become the norm, rather than the exception, for lab results of blood-alcohol tests in DWI cases and DNA analysis in serious felony cases. These delays undermine the ability of our criminal justice system to deter crime and do justice.

Martin said that he’d be convening a multi-disciplinary commission to evaluate the justice system and make recommendations on strengthening the courts within the existing administrative framework and hoped that its work would be available for the start of the 2017 long session.

Read Chief Justice Martin’s speech in full here.

 

 

 

News

(Photo: nccourts.org)

There’ll be few surprises when Chief Justice Mark Martin appears before the General Assembly this afternoon to give his “State of the Judiciary” speech.

He’s made several media appearances these past few weeks to talk about how neglected and overlooked the courts have been when it comes to funding, and as the new leader of the state’s judicial system he’s intent on change.

Late yesterday Martin told WRAL that he will ask state lawmakers for an additional $30 million in funding to bring the courts back to working order.

“I’m asking for $30 million, because we need $30 million,” he said. “According to metrics developed by the National Center for State Courts, we are about 600 positions short. The fewer resources you have in a justice system, the greater pressure upon (district attorney) offices to plea bargain criminal offenses. I don’t think that’s what the people of North Carolina want.”

Being short on judges is just one of the several problems the courts have faced as their funding was slashed more than 40 percent since the recession.  Technology dates back to the 1980s, staff has been overworked and vastly underpaid, and — just this year — funds to pay jurors ran out.

So the gist of Martin’s speech is expected: The state of North Carolina courts is not good.

Below are a few Policy Watch illustrations that prove that point.

Budget cuts, recession batter NC courts, threaten justice

Most people don’t think about what it costs to run the courts, or appreciate just how deep the slashes to the judicial budget have been over the past few years, until they find themselves roaming the halls of justice waiting to be heard. Standing on line out the door for hours to appear in traffic [Continue Reading…]

 

Courting trouble – Budget cuts push Wake County courts back in time

“Must know DOS.”  That’s a “help wanted” job description Wake County Superior Court Clerk Lorrin Freeman might post for staff in her office, if she could hire – an infrequent occurrence these past few years. Remember DOS? That’s the computer operating system many of us first worked on during the 1980s. It’s also [Continue Reading…]

 

Budget cuts leave justice hurtling towards a tipping point

How many bodies does it take to get a new date for a case on the Durham County court docket? At least three. And that’s no joke to court officials there. “Our system is archaic right now,” said Chief District Court Judge Marcia Morey. “We still rely on paper shucks.” That means, said [Continue Reading…]

 

Groundhog Day for NC courts

It could be a scene from the movie “Groundhog Day.” Every long session as the budget is being negotiated, judges and other state court employees head down to the legislature to plead their case for more money for the courts. More judges, more staff, more technology – all are needed to keep the judicial system [Continue Reading…]

 

State court system: Unified in name only?

Someone forgot to remind legislators hell-bent on slashing judicial budgets in recent years that a unified court system does not call for one-size-fits-all funding. Rural districts have different concerns than those in the cities, especially those that span across counties. There are more miles to cover and more courthouses to keep open. And [Continue Reading…]

 

Legal Services kiosks in the jails?

Moving the State Bureau of Investigation from Attorney General to Department of Public Safety oversight may have been one of the lead stories coming out of the Senate budget released on Monday, but there’s several other head-scratching and fiscally short-sighted ideas tucked away in there. Among them: slashing funding for North Carolina Prisoner [Continue Reading…]

 

Silencing the court reporters

State court reporters must have looked like easy prey for senators cutting corners and slashing costs. No money for judges. No money for drug treatment courts. No money for attorneys to represent prisoners. No money for technology upgrades to bring the courts into the 21st century. Why then, should there be money for court reporters, [Continue Reading…]

 

Justice suffers again in Senate budget

There’s plenty to parse in the Senate budget proposal released last night, but when it comes to the fiscal concerns affecting justice and public safety, here’s a theme looming large. Starve the courts. [Continue Reading…]

 

Justice system in state budget crosshairs

No matter how you read them, the Senate budget released in late May and the House budget released yesterday offer little salvation for the justice system in North Carolina. The Senate budget guts funding for legal aid to state residents in lower income brackets, yet gives lawmakers preferential treatment in the courts when it [Continue Reading…]

 

State courts head into the 2015 budget session stripped to the bone

At just about this time last year, John Smith, the director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, approached state lawmakers hat in hand with modest requests for court funding. His budget had been slashed repeatedly since the recession, and Smith knew it would likely be a target once again as the General [Continue Reading…]

 

Suing for support? Cash-strapped courts ponder next moveThe legislative session may be young, but already some state lawmakers are talking about making state court funding a priority. Certainly that’s news, given how the judicial branch has been passed over during budget negotiations in recent years. Perhaps that’s because they’re listening to their like-minded conservative Chief Justice, Mark Martin. The court [Continue Reading…]
NC Budget and Tax Center

Some legislators want to severely limit the resources the state can invest in schools and other needs and are considering arbitrary formulas to guide those decisions, even though we are already doing less with less. State investments as a share of the economy would be $3.2 billion higher if North Carolina caught up to 2008 levels. That means the Governor and legislative state budget writers have a lot of catching up to do to replace what was lost while also keeping up with the growing needs of a growing state. Tying our hands with artificial limits on how much we can invest is a road to ruin.

The goal of these arbitrary formulas is to radically restrict state spending and shrink the reach and effectiveness of critical public services, regardless of need or cost. One example is a formula that would limit year-to-year growth in total state spending to the rate of inflation plus population growth. Automatic spending limits—as well as caps on year-to-year revenue growth—are sold as common-sense measures, but in reality they are not a responsible way to measure the cost of providing basic government services. Instead, such limits merely ensure perpetually insufficient funding and never allow policymakers to replace the cuts enacted in the aftermath of downturns.

Case in point: inflation, as measured by the Consumer Price Index, doesn’t accurately reflect the cost of providing public services overtime. That’s because the CPI measures changes in the cost of goods and services that urban households purchase—not changes in the cost of public goods that benefit all of us. Read More

Commentary

(UPDATED – See below) There’s not a whole lot of encouraging news Moms Demand Actionemanating from the North Carolina General Assembly these days. Today at 12:30, for example, a House Judiciary committee took up legislation to allow some public servants to refuse to perform their sworn duties when it comes to marrying same-sex couples.

So, it was especially encouraging this morning to see and listen to the group of caring and informed citizens pictured at left who came to the Legislative Building to speak out against the ongoing gun violence epidemic that plagues our state. The group, Moms Demand Action, brought more than two dozen gutsy advocates to the halls of the General Assembly (some of them survivors of gun violence) to deliver cookies to legislative offices and inform state lawmakers that there is a wind shift underway when it comes to public attitudes toward guns.

Where once widespread apathy from average citizens allowed the N.R.A., the gun industry and other extreme pro-gun groups to bully lawmakers into doing whatever they asked without organized opposition, the Moms Demand Action citizen lobbyists informed lawmakers today that things are changing. Indeed, with more than 93,000 members in North Carolina and a growing list of successes around the country, there is every reason to believe that the group has begun the long, slow process of reintroducing a measure of sanity into the state’s gun violence debate.

Moms Demand Action tableThat said, there is certainly a heck of a mess to clean up — one that some lawmakers appear to remain bent on making even worse. Yesterday, in the latest effort to bring killing machines into every conceivable nook and cranny of our society, two Forsyth County House members introduced a “local bill” that would allow private school personnel in their county to bring guns onto campuses.

Moms Demand Action opposes the measure and has added it to its list of action items (along with the current and energetic #GroceriesNotGuns campaign to get Kroger and Harris-Teeter to join the list of responsible companies that ban loaded firearms from their stores). (Note: the original version of this story incorrectly stated that Moms Demand Action had taken no position on the bill).

If you’d like more information, visit www.momsdemandaction.org.

News

Legislation that would allow magistrates to discriminate against same sex couples, a renewed push to end dark money in the political process, and a bi-partisan effort to save the historic preservation tax credit mark our top stories of the day: