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.