News

A few highlights from the House budget on Justice and Public Safety

The House’s base budget for Justice and Public Safety was unveiled this morning at an appropriations meeting.

Committee members are still working through the amendment process and they will reconvene at 12:15 p.m. Below are a few highlights from the budget and this morning’s meeting.

  • Similar to the Senate’s budget, the House budget will fund an opioid pilot program. It appropriates $250,000 this year and next for the Department of Public Safety in conjunction with the City of Wilmington to develop and implement a pilot project to establish a “Quick Response Team” to address the needs of opiate and heroin overdose victims who are not getting follow-up treatment.
  • Eliminates litter crews and road squads — the program was funded by receipts from the Department of Transportation and they will no longer be supporting the program, according to the budget. JPS Appropriations Committee Chair, Rep. Allen McNeill (R-Moore, Randolph) said everyone fought to keep that part of the budget but DOT ultimately won. He said private contractors can clean up the litter cheaper than inmates and that it will create more private sector jobs. Rep. Charles Graham (D-Robeson) said he didn’t understand how that could be, and pushed further with more questions. McNeill cut off questions on the topic and said they’d have to wait for the full appropriations meeting to proceed.
  • The budget would provide funding for the State Crime Laboratory to outsource testing of sexual assault evidence collection kits in the custody or control of local law enforcement. General Assembly staff couldn’t answer if there was a need to do this or if it would create delay for victims.
  • There weren’t any legislative changes to the Indigent Defense Services Budget, but a provision would require the agency, along with the Administrative Office of the Courts, to study and develop specific statewide standards for determining indigency for defendants. The study shall include a review of the practices of other states regarding determination of indigency, analysis of cost-effectiveness of alternatives to the status quo and implementation plans for the standards agreed upon.
  • The budget provides over $2.7 million recurring funds to add 37 new assistant district attorneys. It’s unclear though, exactly which counties would get those positions, and a budget provision eliminates a requirement that legislators consult the workload formula established through the National Center for State Courts.
  • The budget includes a provision that would make it nearly impossible for judges to waive court costs for defendants. Rep. Joe John (D-Wake) and Rep. David Rogers (R-Burke, Rutherford) pointed out the impracticality of the provision, and McNeill said it was to try reign in judges waiving fees across the state (though it should be noted only about 8 percent of criminal cases across the state result in a waiver of court fees). The provision would require the court to provide notice to government entities directly affected by the remission or waiver of all or part of the order of court costs at least 15 days prior to a hearing. John said the provision would slow courts to a grinding halt. Legislative staff said a study had not been done to see what effect it would have on the courts.
  • Another provision in the budget would eliminate access to civil justice funds. That means that $1.50 of each court fee collected by the State Treasurer would no longer go to general legal services, and 95 cents of each fee would no longer go to programs that represent domestic violence victims. This provision moved through the first part of the meeting without discussion.
  • The budget does not eliminate emergency recall judges like the Senate’s did, but it does limit the number of them.

Stay tuned to Progressive Pulse for amendment updates as the meeting continues on.

Courts & the Law, News

House committee debates, approves bill that would create delay for asbestos victims seeking recovery

Sen. Michael V. Lee (R-New Hanover) discusses a bill he sponsors that would affect asbestos-related cases. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

North Carolina lawmakers are dipping into federal issues of civil law to help national stakeholders gain momentum in delaying asbestos cancer victims from getting recovery funds.

Members of the House II Judiciary Committee voted 6-4 along party lines to advance Senate Bill 470, which would require plaintiffs in asbestos claims to disclose information about bankruptcy trust claims in personal injury actions, including the amount of monies awarded “or reasonably expected to be awarded.”

There was about an hour of debate, which mostly consisted of lawmakers asking questions of Greensboro attorney Janet Ward Black, an opponent of the bill, and Raleigh attorney Kirk Warner and D.C. attorney Mark Behrens from the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform, both proponents of the bill.

Sen. Michael Lee (R-New Hanover) carried the bill and also tried to answer some questions. He told committee members that the bill received broad bipartisan support in the Senate and that it promotes transparency on behalf of asbestos victims to the court.

Black said the law is a paper tiger — there aren’t any asbestos cases filed in North Carolina state court. By the state passing such a law, it helps the asbestos industry, which is behind the law, gain momentum to get it passed in states where there is pending litigation.

Greensboro attorney Janet Ward Black speaks Tuesday at a House committee meeting against a bill that would affect asbestos cases. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

“They would like to color in North Carolina on that map,” she said, referencing a map that Lee showed committee members of other states that passed similar laws.

The real end result of the bill, Black said, is to delay dying people from getting the money they are owed for recovery.

“This hurts people who are dying of asbestos disease because it is an effort by companies to complicate the process and delay, delay, delay,” she said.

Cases involving North Carolinians who have asbestos disease are filed in federal court and are very isolated, according to Black. There are about 50 cases currently pending in federal court — an estimate on the high side.

North Carolina is a “contributory negligence” state that does not require companies to pay recovery funds to victims who made a decision not to protect themselves from asbestos and requires a bigger burden of plaintiffs to prove wrongdoing.

Warner and Behrens said SB470 would prevent current asbestos victims from robbing future victims of recovery funds, insinuating the current system makes it easier for double-dipping.

Debate, at times, got very deep into complicated tort law and civil procedure.

The bill was successfully amended by Rep. Joe John (D-Wake), to make it so it wouldn’t affect pending claims, and Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford), to eliminate Section 2, which requires plaintiffs to provide the amount of consideration paid for a release or covenant not to sue, including any monies awarded or reasonably expected to be rewarded from a bankruptcy trust.

News

NC Treasurer: Court’s ruling in favor of retired workers, teachers could have ‘severe’ implications

North Carolina Treasurer Dale Folwell warned legislators Friday that the state may be on the hook to pay more than $100 million to retired workers and teachers if a judge’s ruling stands that they were wrongfully required to pay heath insurance premiums.

“It is my duty as North Carolina State Treasurer to call your attention to a matter that may have severe financial and practical implications for the State of North Carolina,” the letter states.

Retired teachers and state employees, including former Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake, filed suit in Gaston County Superior Court in April 2012. The lawsuit became class certified and now exceeds 220,000 retirees, according to Folwell’s letter — all of whom will be entitled to premium-free health insurance for the duration of their retirement, according to a court order also issued last week.

Judge Edwin Wilson Jr. ruled that retirement health benefits are contractual and that the defendants breached that contract when class members began to be charged premiums for standard health insurance in Sept. 2011.

He ordered that they be reimbursed for the premiums they’ve already paid over the years, which grew from $21.62 per month for non-Medicare plans in 2011 to over $105 per month beginning in January.

The State Health Plan provides health care coverage to more than 714,000 teachers, state employees, retirees, current and former lawmakers, state university and community college personnel, and their dependents, according to its website.

The Associated Press reported the 2011 law that required class members to pay premiums was approved to rein in hemorrhaging expenses at the Health Plan. A retiree who still wanted to avoid premiums could get covered under a plan with less-generous benefits, the report states.

The court’s remedy will be on hold until all appeals are exhausted, according to the order.

Folwell said in his letter that the $100 million figure does not include what it would cost for the state to comply with giving retirees benefits moving forward. Folwell estimates that could add billions to the already $42 billion unfunded liability for retiree health coverage, and “would also considerably limit the State’s flexibility to reform the State Health Plan.”

“Should the Plaintiffs ultimately prevail, our current liability could increase dramatically, reaching an unsustainable level in the very near future,” he added.

Folwell says the situation calls for legislative action.

Courts & the Law, News

Court of Appeals 50th anniversary celebrates current, former judges

Current state Court of Appeals judges, Supreme Court justices and former judges gathered for a picture Thursday at a ceremony celebrating the appellate court’s 50th anniversary. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

The people’s working court turned 50 this year and current and former judges and staff gathered Thursday to celebrate their accomplishments.

Walking through the halls of the Court of Appeals before and after the ceremony was just like being at a family reunion. Judges who gathered for the event were smiling and laughing, hugging old friends and making new ones and sharing stories.

“There is much for us to celebrate today,” said former Chief Judge John C. Martin.

He was one of three former chief judges who spoke to a full room during the ceremony. He pointed out the judges’ portraits on the wall and said he was reminded of the great judges who led the way for the Court of Appeals to become what it is today.

He spoke about the work of the court and about the collegiality and professionalism among the judges.

“Most judges left their differences at the doorstep,” he said. “They came together to work as colleagues, as judges, not as male or female, not as Republican or Democrat, not as black or white.”

Martin said their work together led to the court being recognized as one of the most efficient intermediate appellate courts in the country at a time when the judges were some of the lowest paid in the country.

He added that no matter what the challenge was over the years, the court overcame, and “now, it appears that the court’s efficiency will face another challenge.”

Martin was referring to the General Assembly’s recent decision to reduce the Court of Appeals from its current 15 judges to 12. He was the only speaker who referenced the law specifically, though a number of the other speakers subtly addressed it.

“But even in the face of that, I have no doubt this court will rise to whatever challenge,” Martin said.

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin said over the past 50 years, the Court of Appeals has exceeded every expectation.

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin made remarks Thursday at the Court of Appeals 50th anniversary event. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

The court through its judges, law court and staff, he said, handles approximately 2,300 appeals per year and each judge writes over 100 opinions per year. The court renders the final decision in about 95 percent of all appeals, he added.

“We really appreciate your work ethic and being such effective guardians of the rule of law,” he said. “This court’s workload is even more impressive when you consider how few judges we have when compared to other states of similar populations.”

Martin pointed out that the Michigan Court of Appeals has 28 judges, Tennessee appellate court has 24 and Ohio’s has 69.

“For those who are challenged at math, I want you to observe that there are 15 judges up here for the ninth most populous state in the country, and I find that to be an amazing statistic,” he said.

The state Court of Appeals is currently comprised of Chief Judge Linda McGee and Judges Wanda Bryant, Ann Marie Calabria, Rick Elmore, Donna Stroud, Robert Hunter Jr., Chris Dillon, Mark Davis, Richard Dietz, John Tyson, Lucy Inman, Valerie Zachary, Philip Berger Jr., Hunter Murphy and John Arrowood.

Gov. Roy Cooper signed a proclamation declaring Thursday the official 50th anniversary of the Court of Appeals. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Gov. Roy Cooper thanked the current judges and the former ones in the audience for their commitment to public service. He said it was his deep honor to attend the ceremony and signed a proclamation recognizing the day as the 50th anniversary of the State Court of Appeals.

“I think all of you know and appreciate what a strong, fair, independent judiciary means to our system of government,” he said. “It makes us the greatest country in the world and I believe the greatest state in the country.”

The former judges who spoke recalled how much they loved serving on the court and spoke fondly of the camaraderie on the Court of Appeals.

“My service on this court has been a singular honor, a professional high point,” said former Chief Judge Sidney Eagles Jr. “I enjoyed almost all the work and all the friendships.”

Former Chief Judge S. Gerald Arnold said he learned a lot during his time on the court and spoke of the importance of collegiality and judicial decorum.

He added of the ceremony honoring themselves, “I do think we are entitled to brag on ourselves a little bit.”

There was a documentary about the Court’s history shown at the ceremony, and Walter Brock Jr., the son of the late former Judge Walter Brock, was the last to make remarks.

Brock said he has a personal connection to both the history and the future success of the court, which was not and is not inevitable.

His hopes for the future include that the court remains accessible, friendly and helpful to the Bar, that all the judges, regardless of the size of the court and the workload, make time to enjoy the camaraderie and that the relationship between the Court of Appeals and the state Supreme Court remain solid.

The ceremony ended with a dedication of a new judges’ portrait wall.

News

Multiple state officials make announcements in advancements for battle against opioid abuse

It’s been a big day for North Carolina’s battle in an opioid crisis that is plaguing the nation.

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin announced that he accepted an invitation to join the Regional Judicial Opioid Initiative (RJOI), which is a working group of regional state court officials that was created to develop multi-state solutions and best practices for addressing the opioid epidemic.

“Rising opioid addiction is a grave issue that has serious implications for our criminal justice system,” Martin said. “I look forward to working with my colleagues in other states to develop comprehensive judicial solutions as we assist our states in efforts to prevent and combat addiction.”

Gov. Roy Cooper, Attorney General Josh Stein and State Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen also announced today that North Carolina will receive a $31 million federal grant to fight the opioid crisis.

“We have got to do more to prevent people from becoming addicted, treat people who are addicted and enforce our laws aggressively against the drug traffickers who are breeding misery and death in our state,” Stein said.

Both announcements come on the heels of a $1 million budget provision that would strip education funding from Democratic districts to fight the opioid crisis in Republican districts.

Data shows that opioid addiction doesn’t just affect counties in Republican districts — a report released earlier this week shows that in 2015, there were more than 1,100 opioid-related deaths across the state, a 73 percent increase from 2005. The report also outlines county-by-county figures.

According to a news release from the Administrative Office of the Courts, prescription opioids were responsible for about half of opioid-related deaths last year.

“Among other negative effects, opioid addiction can serve as a gateway to heroin use, as demonstrated by North Carolina’s 884% increase in heroin-related deaths since 2010,” the release states.

In his letter accepting the invitation to join RJOI, Martin said the most heartbreaking effect of the opioid crisis in North Carolina is on the state’s children, “since parental addiction inevitably leads to increased abuse and neglect.”

“Our communities have too much at stake to remain passive in the face of this growing threat,” he states in the letter. “The fight against opioid abuse is one that we cannot lose.”

Martin recently served as co-chair of the Governor’s Task Force on Mental Health and Substance Use to develop recommendations in North Carolina for improving the lives of youth and adults with mental illness and substance use disorders, and their families.