Good news for the courts came last month when the House announced a badly-needed $18 million infusion to bring the state’s judicial system into the digital age, as part of its proposed 2015-17 budget.
But bad news followed yesterday, when the Senate released a proposed budget that provides virtually no funding for court technology, with just $567,000 set aside for an “electronic compliance dismissal project.”
That might come as a bit of a shock to Chief Justice Mark Martin, who in a March speech asked the General Assembly to step up its court funding, in part to implement a statewide electronic filing system.
“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 at the time. “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.”
Among the other highlights from the Senate budget affecting justice and judicial issues:
- A proposed 19 percent cut to the Capital Defender’s Office, which provides legal services for indigent defendants charged with capital crimes and possibly facing the death penalty. The budget calls for the elimination of seven positions, including four attorneys. “We are concerned that we will lose experienced attorneys who are currently representing defendants facing the most serious cases, and that this loss will not generate any real savings in money,” Thomas Maher, Executive Director of the Office of Indigent Defense Services, said in an email.
- Funds for interpreters, expert witness and juries in the same amount as the House ($1.5 million per year), but significantly less for operating costs and legal services. The House broke out funds for legal services and funds for the operating budget into two categories — with a combined $12.4 million set aside for the next two years. The Senate merged those two categories and set aside a total of only $6.6 million for the same period.
- Elimination of three special superior court judgeships. Presumably these are the positions already phased out in the prior budget — and not additional cuts — and appear in the budget solely to show the funds recaptured.
- Step pay raises for state troopers, correctional officers, assistant and deputy clerks and magistrates and an $18 million adjustment to the workers’ compensation reserve.
Read more about the General Assembly’s continued underfunding of the state’s judicial system in our “Courts in Crisis” section, here.