News

In case you missed it, the Wall Street Journal weighed in on Tuesday on the growing backlog of civil cases in federal courts across the country, due mostly to more criminal cases and fewer judges.

That’s a topic Policy Watch has written about frequently — especially as it relates to North Carolina’s Eastern District, where a judgeship has gone unfilled for close to ten years.

As we pointed out recently:

Fewer judges handling rising caseloads means that it’s taking longer for cases, especially civil ones, to get to trial. Data collected by the federal courts show that it now takes 63 percent longer for a civil case to get to trial. In 1993 it took 16 months; in 2013, 23 months.

Filing-changes

Numbers from the Eastern District fall in line with this trend. For the year ending September 2014, it took an average of 27 months from filing for a civil case to get to trial.

But there’s another reason why the state’s U.S. Senators should act with a sense of urgency to get the Eastern District vacancy filled and perhaps also seek another judgeship for that court: The number of judges there hasn’t kept up with population growth in the region.

According to population data analyzed by the Journal and charted in its print edition (subscription required for online), North Carolina’s Eastern District is second only to California’s Eastern District in terms of number of residents per judgeship.

News

A three-judge panel ruled this afternoon that state lawmakers exceeded their authority when enacting laws empowering themselves to make appointments to the state coal ash cleanup and fracking commissions.

The ruling, coming from a panel composed of two Republican judges and one Democrat — as noted below by the News & Observer’s Craig Jarvis — is a victory for Gov. Pat McCrory, who filed suit alleging infringement upon his executive authority.

Jarvis

“This historic and unanimous ruling respects and restores the separation of powers,” the governor said in a statement. “I’m proud to stand up for our Constitution and the citizens of North Carolina.  I’d like to thank former Governors Jim Martin and Jim Hunt for joining me in this effort to protect the principles of our state.”

In response to the governor’s claims, lawmakers argued that McCrory lacked standing to bring the lawsuit and that he had waived his right to bring the challenge when he failed to veto the laws and  thereafter appointed some members to the coal ash commission.

The judges called the lawmakers’ arguments “borderline specious” and said that the governor’s objections were “indisputably clear.”

“The Legislature brushed the objections aside like a knife through hot butter,” they wrote.

“There was no requirement or need to veto the legislation when the Legislature held a veto proof majority in both houses. The law does not require a party to do a vain act.”

Referring to the lawmakers’ actions, the panel held:

[T]he statutes creating these commissions, enacted by the Legislature, provide for legislative appointment of some of the members, thereby constituting an impermissible commingling of the legislative power and executive power and an impermissible encroachment by the legislative branch of government on the executive branch of government in violation of Section 6 of Article I of the North Carolina Constitution that provides: “The legislative, executive and supreme judicial powers of the State government shall be forever separate and distinct from each other.”

 

News

money_bags.jpgFor years, Finland’s public education system has served as the exemplar against which schools in other countries should be measured.

By elevating the status of teachers to “professionals” and minimizing testing in favor of personal attention, the Finns have a proven track record. As LynNell Hancock reported in this 2011 Smithsonian piece:

Educators had little idea it was so successful until 2000, when the first results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year-olds in more than 40 global venues, revealed Finnish youth to be the best young readers in the world. Three years later, they led in math. By 2006, Finland was first out of 57 countries (and a few cities) in science. In the 2009 PISA?scores released last year, the nation came in second in science, third in reading and sixth in math among nearly half a million students worldwide.

Now it looks like the Finns are on to another interesting idea, this time in the criminal justice arena: assessing fines for certain offenses based upon ability to pay.

As explained in this Atlantic piece by Joe Pinsker:

Finland’s system for calculating fines is relatively simple: It starts with an estimate of the amount of spending money a Finn has for one day, and then divides that by two—the resulting number is considered a reasonable amount of spending money to deprive the offender of. Then, based on the severity of the crime, the system has rules for how many days the offender must go without that money. Going about 15 mph over the speed limit gets you a multiplier of 12 days, and going 25 mph over carries a 22-day multiplier.

Such a system is certainly worthy of consideration in this country, where the illogic of heaping hefty fines and penalties upon those least able to pay, and then jailing those who don’t pay, has been well-documented.

Here’s Durham County Chief District Court Judge Marcia Morey: Read More

News

Screen Shot 2015-03-05 at 3.53.57 PMNo cuts, but no $30 million either.

That sums up the news for the state’s judicial system per Gov. Pat McCrory’s proposed 2015-2017 budget released yesterday.

The additional $16 million the governor would give the courts “for essential services” is a far cry from the $30 million Chief Justice Mark Martin asked for just a day earlier as he prepared for his State of the Judiciary speech.

“I’m asking for $30 million, because we need $30 million,” Martin told WRAL, saying that was the bare minimum the state judicial system needed to get back to ground zero.

The governor’s funding would begin the restoring of the system’s depleted operating budget, with monies to be used for “costs associated with jurors, witnesses, interpreters, expert witnesses for prosecutors, equipment maintenance, and hardware and software.”

As part of his plan, the governor would also appropriate $1.2 million to expand the Business Court to two additional locations, “as recommended by the North Carolina Economic Development Board.”

Other proposals affecting Justice & Public Safety include:

  • Fund the full five percent step increase for eligible State Troopers in each year of the biennium.
  • Implement a new salary schedule for nearly ten thousand corrections officers, reflecting the level of the prisons in which they work and updating a pay scale last increased in the mid-1980s.
  • Provide funding for the Highway Patrol, State Bureau of Investigation, and Alcohol Law Enforcement to replace aging law enforcement vehicles to improve safety and reduce maintenance costs.
  • Increase funding to pay private assigned counsel contracted to represent indigent clients throughout the state to $5.8 million.
  • Establish behavior health treatment units at eight high security prisons across the state and increases resources for treatment of inmates with behavioral health needs.
  • Open another 72 inpatient residential mental health beds at the Central Prison Health Care Facility.
  • Provide funds to the Governor’s Crime Commission, which will award grants to law enforcement agencies to hire staff to use data analysis to locate and rescue children in danger.
  • Support law enforcement and local prosecutors with additional funding to improve crime lab operations and reduce criminal case backlogs.
  • Support a recommendation from the North Carolina Government Efficiency and Reform (NC GEAR) initiative to transfer the Animal Welfare section from the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to the Department of Public Safety and increase resources to allow animal welfare to be more effectively addressed by the law enforcement community.
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.