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12 judges and 20,000 cases down: What SB 10 means for the courts

Among the position-slashing that will follow from Senate Bill 10 — passed by that body last week and now in the House, possibly with a vote to come as early as today — are 12 special superior court judge positions that Republicans say can be dispensed with at a cost savings of more than $2 million.

To the extent that elimination of those positions would result in case backlog, they also say in the fiscal note attached to that bill, the Administrative Office of the Courts can contract with “emergency judges” — retired judges who get paid $400 per day out of lapsed salaries.

Putting aside the constitutional problems with getting rid of these judges; the questionability of paying retired judges out of an already-stretched “lapsed salary” fund used to pay for a host of other constitutionally-required but unfunded services — interpreters, for example; the unaccounted-for cost in time and money to replace special judges already sitting on and familiar with existing cases; and the sheer recklessness of passing a bill without any analysis of its impact on those who work in the judicial system and those they serve, here’s what’s also wrong with this bill.

The special superior court judges are more than carrying their weight.

And the legislators know that.

According to the News & Observer, Sen. Buck Newton, R-Wilson, said he was told special superior court judges spend less than 10 hours a week on average on the bench. Even if that were true (it’s not), that’s like assessing how the senator is doing his job by looking at how much time he spends on the Senate floor.

Per the information the AOC has provided the General Assembly, the 12 special superior court judges account for nearly 10 percent of total superior court on-bench time — which is roughly proportional to their percentage share of total judgeships (12 out of 112) and roughly equivalent to their resident court colleagues.

But here’s the thing about on-bench time: it doesn’t take into account any of the other tasks of a judge’s day. Per the AOC, “on-bench time reports capture only in-court time, and do not record meetings with counsel in chambers, settlement conferences, supervision of staff, review of pleadings, motions, and other documents, drafting of orders and judgments, legal research or other matters conducted during regular office hours.”

It also doesn’t capture the travel time that special judges have to put in as part of their respective judicial days. Unlike their resident judge colleagues, the special superior court judges are assigned to cases throughout the state and can find themselves in different districts on any given day.

Here’s what the legislators also know but has gone unsaid in the SB 10 fiscal note: Special superior court judges presumably disposed of cases at roughly the same 10 percent – which in 2011-12 amounted to some 20,000 cases. That’s the impact that either the existing judges would have to absorb or the retired “emergency judges” would have to take on to prevent a backlog.

“Emergency judges” cost more than $400 per day.

By statute, an emergency judge is paid “the judge’s actual expenses, plus four hundred dollars ($400.00) for each day of active service rendered upon recall.” Per the fiscal note, the General Assembly has already appropriated $21,842 for each special judge’s annual expenses, including travel time.

So, if number-crunching is the way we’re assessing access to justice, tack that on to the emergency judge per diem bill.

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12 judges and 20,000 cases down: What SB 10 means for the courts