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Bar studyA new study released today by the North Carolina Bar Association shows that the state court system generated more than $460 million in direct economic impact and supported more than 6,000 jobs here last year.

“The study reveals what we have known all along – our courts have an enormous impact on our economy and deserve adequate funding in order to serve the needs of North Carolina citizens and businesses,” NCBA president Catharine Arrowood said.

The association commissioned the study as part of renewed efforts to educate state residents and lawmakers about the critical role the courts play not only in protecting citizens’ rights but also in supporting the state’s economy.

Despite the demonstrated economic impact, the courts have take unprecedented hits over the last five years, seeing budgets slashed by as much as 30 percent in some areas.

“The study shows that cuts in funding over the past four years have totaled $35 million,”Arrowood added. “This reduction in direct spending has had a cumulative four-year total impact on the North Carolina economy just over $67 million in reduced spending.”

Read the full report here.

 

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.

 

 

 

News

(Photo: nccourts.org)

There’ll be few surprises when Chief Justice Mark Martin appears before the General Assembly this afternoon to give his “State of the Judiciary” speech.

He’s made several media appearances these past few weeks to talk about how neglected and overlooked the courts have been when it comes to funding, and as the new leader of the state’s judicial system he’s intent on change.

Late yesterday Martin told WRAL that he will ask state lawmakers for an additional $30 million in funding to bring the courts back to working order.

“I’m asking for $30 million, because we need $30 million,” he said. “According to metrics developed by the National Center for State Courts, we are about 600 positions short. The fewer resources you have in a justice system, the greater pressure upon (district attorney) offices to plea bargain criminal offenses. I don’t think that’s what the people of North Carolina want.”

Being short on judges is just one of the several problems the courts have faced as their funding was slashed more than 40 percent since the recession.  Technology dates back to the 1980s, staff has been overworked and vastly underpaid, and — just this year — funds to pay jurors ran out.

So the gist of Martin’s speech is expected: The state of North Carolina courts is not good.

Below are a few Policy Watch illustrations that prove that point.

Budget cuts, recession batter NC courts, threaten justice

Most people don’t think about what it costs to run the courts, or appreciate just how deep the slashes to the judicial budget have been over the past few years, until they find themselves roaming the halls of justice waiting to be heard. Standing on line out the door for hours to appear in traffic [Continue Reading…]

 

Courting trouble – Budget cuts push Wake County courts back in time

“Must know DOS.”  That’s a “help wanted” job description Wake County Superior Court Clerk Lorrin Freeman might post for staff in her office, if she could hire – an infrequent occurrence these past few years. Remember DOS? That’s the computer operating system many of us first worked on during the 1980s. It’s also [Continue Reading…]

 

Budget cuts leave justice hurtling towards a tipping point

How many bodies does it take to get a new date for a case on the Durham County court docket? At least three. And that’s no joke to court officials there. “Our system is archaic right now,” said Chief District Court Judge Marcia Morey. “We still rely on paper shucks.” That means, said [Continue Reading…]

 

Groundhog Day for NC courts

It could be a scene from the movie “Groundhog Day.” Every long session as the budget is being negotiated, judges and other state court employees head down to the legislature to plead their case for more money for the courts. More judges, more staff, more technology – all are needed to keep the judicial system [Continue Reading…]

 

State court system: Unified in name only?

Someone forgot to remind legislators hell-bent on slashing judicial budgets in recent years that a unified court system does not call for one-size-fits-all funding. Rural districts have different concerns than those in the cities, especially those that span across counties. There are more miles to cover and more courthouses to keep open. And [Continue Reading…]

 

Legal Services kiosks in the jails?

Moving the State Bureau of Investigation from Attorney General to Department of Public Safety oversight may have been one of the lead stories coming out of the Senate budget released on Monday, but there’s several other head-scratching and fiscally short-sighted ideas tucked away in there. Among them: slashing funding for North Carolina Prisoner [Continue Reading…]

 

Silencing the court reporters

State court reporters must have looked like easy prey for senators cutting corners and slashing costs. No money for judges. No money for drug treatment courts. No money for attorneys to represent prisoners. No money for technology upgrades to bring the courts into the 21st century. Why then, should there be money for court reporters, [Continue Reading…]

 

Justice suffers again in Senate budget

There’s plenty to parse in the Senate budget proposal released last night, but when it comes to the fiscal concerns affecting justice and public safety, here’s a theme looming large. Starve the courts. [Continue Reading…]

 

Justice system in state budget crosshairs

No matter how you read them, the Senate budget released in late May and the House budget released yesterday offer little salvation for the justice system in North Carolina. The Senate budget guts funding for legal aid to state residents in lower income brackets, yet gives lawmakers preferential treatment in the courts when it [Continue Reading…]

 

State courts head into the 2015 budget session stripped to the bone

At just about this time last year, John Smith, the director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, approached state lawmakers hat in hand with modest requests for court funding. His budget had been slashed repeatedly since the recession, and Smith knew it would likely be a target once again as the General [Continue Reading…]

 

Suing for support? Cash-strapped courts ponder next moveThe legislative session may be young, but already some state lawmakers are talking about making state court funding a priority. Certainly that’s news, given how the judicial branch has been passed over during budget negotiations in recent years. Perhaps that’s because they’re listening to their like-minded conservative Chief Justice, Mark Martin. The court [Continue Reading…]
Commentary

Mark MartinThe Charlotte Observer has reprinted the remarks that new state Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin made at his swearing-in ceremony on Monday.

Lots of it was fairly standard stuff about improving efficiency and civics education, but at least two sections amount to direct repudiations of the state’s conservative political leaders on critically important topics — courts funding and transparency.

According to Martin, current funding for and transparency in the state judiciary are both inadequate. And on these points — if he’s really serious, that is — he’s dead on.

As Policy Watch reporter Sharon McCloskey has reported repeatedly, funding for the state courts system has fallen to crisis levels under the current General Assembly and Governor and has reached the point at which citizens are simply being denied access to justice because the courts can’t afford basic things.

As McCloskey has also reported, the same can be said for the issue of transparency — most notably and egregiously in the enactment of the new “star chamber” law that allows the Supreme Court members to consider complaints against their own members (and mete out discipline) in complete secrecy.

Martin’s comments were fairly general  in nature, but let’s fervently hope that he was just being, ahem, judicious with his language, really means what he said and that he’s got the guts to talk back to his fellow Republicans on these critically important issues in the coming weeks.