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(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…]
NC Budget and Tax Center

The Charlotte Observer reports of the strain on the state’s court system in the wake of state budget cuts in recent years. The state’s court system is expected to run out of funding for juror pay by April of next year, the Charlotte Observer highlights.

The ability of the state’s court system to operate effectively has been increasingly challenged amid cuts in state funding over the years. While other states have adopted technology and incorporated electronic filing systems, North Carolina continues to use a paper-based system, which slows down the judicial process. The time taken to complete civil and criminal cases has increased in recent years, the Charlotte Observer article notes, resulting in a judicial system that is inefficient, more costly, and less customer-friendly.

State lawmakers quoted in the article note their unawareness of the pending funding shortage for juror pay and state that the General Assembly is being asked for money that it doesn’t have. This is increasingly clear as stories throughout the state have highlighted yet another announcement that the state’s revenue collections are below projections.  Official estimates now put the revenue shortfall for the current fiscal year at $190 million.

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Commentary

Raleigh’s News & Observer has re-posted an editorial this morning that recently ran in its McClatchy sibling in Charlotte that deserves to be spread far and wide. It’s central message: North Carolina’s law mandating that judges retire at age 72 (the one that force current Supreme Court Justice Sarah Parker to retire this weekend) is ridiculous, out-dated and needs to be retired itself. Here is the excellent conclusion

Thirty-three states require the compulsory retirement of judges, with most setting an age limit between 70 and 75. Some of those laws were written to avoid lifetime tenure in states where judges don’t face re-election challenges. Some were written to ensure that the courts have a vigorous judiciary. (If North Carolina must have an age limit, we suggest a look at Vermont, which doesn’t force the gold watch on its judges until they hit 90. Now that’s some long-lasting vigor.)

The best approach: Lose the age limit. Federal judges don’t have one. Neither does any branch of government. Mandatory retirement is unnecessary and discriminatory. It’s also costly – North Carolina has to pay retirement benefits to a perfectly good judge, then pay another judge to take his or her place.

The bigger cost, however, is the experience and wisdom that leave the bench when judges are forced to retire. Let judges – and the people who elect them – determine when it’s time to go.

ead more here: http://www.newsobserver.com/2014/08/28/4103439/judging-when-someones-too-old.html?sp=/99/108/#storylink=cpy

Click here to read the entire editorial.

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Guilford-Courthouse-150x150When it comes to providing access to justice for the state’s most vulnerable residents, North Carolina ranks slightly above-average, according to The Justice Index, a new report from the National Center for Access to Justice at Cardozo Law School in New York.

In its initial report from an ongoing study, the center looked at and assigned a score for these elements of state-based justice systems:

  • the number of civil legal aid attorneys serving the poor;
  • systems available to assist self represented litigants;
  • systems available to assist people with limited English proficiency; and,
  • systems available to assist people with disabilities.

States were assigned a score in each category based on data volunteers collected from the state court systems over the past year. From there, states were assigned an overall composite score on a scale of 1 to 100.

North Carolina came in 20th place overall in offering access to the courts for our most vulnerable residents. That ranking largely resulted from higher scores for the provision of qualified foreign language interpreters — with the state ranked 18th — and for disability assistance, with the state — in an 11-way tie — ranked third.

But the state ranked 33d in providing assistance for pro se litigants and 38th for the number of lawyers per people in poverty. For every 10,000 people in poverty here, the state has less than one lawyer (.84).

Sadly, we already know that here. As Gene Nichol, director of the UNC School of Law Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity wrote in October:

In North Carolina, over 80 percent of poor and low-income folks – facing wrenching legal wrongs or challenges – can’t get legal representation. The courthouse door maybe open, but only in theory. They can’t use it.

But now the rest of the country knows that as well.