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How the courts fare in the latest budget proposal

Courts in crisisBack in March, Chief Justice Mark Martin stood before state lawmakers — at their invitation — and told them it was time to step up court finding.

“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.”

It was a big ask.

“I’m asking for $30 million, because we need $30 million,” Chief Justice Mark Martin told WRAL at the time, saying that that was the bare minimum needed to fund the judicial branch.

Much of that, he added, needed to go towards updating the court’s antiquated technology.

High ball – low ball negotiations seemingly followed at the General Assembly, leaving the courts — should the latest budget proposal become law — with a little something in each of the judicial funding categories, but nowhere near what’s required to fully fund them.

Yes, the courts may now be able to avoid the embarrassment of being unable to pay jury members or court-required interpreters.

But bringing the state’s judicial system into the digital age?

That’s not going to happen quickly.

And filling the 536 court positions the National Center for State Courts says North Carolina needs to meet workload requirements?

That’s not happening either.

Aside from the one-time state employee $750 bonus that court staff will get, and step pay raises for magistrates and assistant and deputy clerks, here’s how the court budget is shaking out otherwise, per the Conference Committee proposal released before midnight.

Technology Following the Chief Justice’s remarks, the House responded with a bang, proposing nearly $19 million in May to fund technology improvements as part of its proposed 2015-17 budget.  That was way more than the $5 million former Administrative Office of the Courts director John Smith requested for technology for in his February letter to state budget director Lee Roberts, and certainly more than the governor had in his proposed budget — which was nothing. But the Senate nixed that a month later, offering up little more than $567,000 in its budget for an “electronic compliance dismissal project.” What came out of the Conference Committee? For planning and implementation of the AOC’s  eCourts initiative (which includes  electronic filing, retrieval and processing of documents), lawmakers now propose  $1.8 million over the next two fiscal years ($3.6 million total), along with $567, 236 for the electronic compliance project.

Operating budget The operating budget, which funds constitutionally and legally mandated services (contract court reporters, non-expert witnesses, medical evidence, etc. ) plus equipment, travel supplies and maintenance needed to operate the court system, has been chronically underfunded. For that, the House proposed $12.4 million over two years.  That amount at least approximated what Judge Smith and the governor had requested ($15.9 million and $16 million respectively). The Senate responded though with $6.6 million, and under the latest proposal, the operating budget will get a $9.16 million boost.

Funds for interpreters, expert witnesses and juries The House, Senate & Conference Committee all agree on  $1.57 million over two years ($3.11 million).

Indigent Defense The House had proposed $3.4 million in each of two years to pay private appointed defense counsel. The Senate countered with $4.4 million each year, but called for the elimination of seven positions in the Capital Defender’s Office, which provides legal services for indigent defendants charged with capital crimes and possibly facing the death penalty — reducing funding there by $750,000. Under the Conference Committee proposal, $3.4 million would be allocated each year, with no reductions in funding or positions for the Capital Defender’s Office.

Elimination of judgeships. Each of the House, Senate and Conference Committee proposals calls for the elimination of special superior court judgeships and the funding of at least one new business court judge. Under the Conference Committee proposal, a total of six special superior court judgeships will be abolished as their terms expire (latest is December 2017), with one new business court judgeship funded instead.

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