Final budget delivers hits to legal services, emergency judges, Department of Justice

It’s only been a little over 24 hours since the North Carolina General Assembly introduced its final budget and its already well on its way to a House vote after passing the Senate on Tuesday.

There is plenty to read in the 438-page document and plenty to get confused about. Below are a few highlights from the Justice and Public Safety budget:

Raise the Age

Lawmakers have finally agreed to raise the juvenile age of prosecution from 16 and 17 years old to 18 years old. The final budget allocates $519,600 the first fiscal year toward “Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act Planning” and $478,000 the second fiscal year.

The budget policy decision mandates that 16- and 17-year-olds who are accused of committing misdemeanors and two classes of felonies no longer be automatically prosecuted in the adult criminal system.

The policy decision also increases the information available on juveniles to law enforcement and establishes a juvenile jurisdiction advisory committee to help with implementation. You can read more about the decision beginning on page 309 of the budget.

Legal Aid

If you haven’t already read Rob Schofield’s piece about the budget provision entitled “Access to Civil Justice Funds,” do it now. And then come back to finish reading this article.

The provision will eliminate $1.7 million in legal services programs across the state, affecting those most in need and almost assuredly creating unequal access to justice.

The Access to Civil Justice Act funds all traditional legal services programs, including Legal Aid Legal Aid of North Carolina (LANC), Legal Services of Southern Piedmont and Pisgah Legal Services.

As written in the final budget, the provision means that $1.50 of every court fee imposed in District and Superior Courts would no longer be distributed to the North Carolina State Bar for legal services. It could also mean reducing LANC staff across the state by 50 to 60 or more positions.

Emergency judges

Instead of eliminating emergency judges altogether (ahem … Senate), budget negotiations resulted in lawmakers reducing funds for emergency judges, reducing the number of emergency judges who can be recalled and limiting situations for which an emergency judge may be recalled.

Emergency judges are typically are used to hold regular or special sessions to meet emergent needs caused by illness, death, vacancies, or other exigent reasons, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts. They also can be assigned to help alleviate backlogs or keep dockets current.

The budget dictates there be an active and inactive list of emergency judges for district and superior courts. For emergency superior and special superior court judges, the active list will be limited to 10 emergency judges. For emergency district court judges, the active list will be limited to 25 emergency judges.

An emergency judge shall only be assigned in the event of a:

  1. Death of a sitting judge
  2. Disability of a sitting judge
  3. Recall to active military duty of a sitting judge
  4. Retirement or removal of a sitting judge
  5. Court case-management emergency

Lawmakers reduced the overall budget for emergency judges by $231,671 for the first and second fiscal year. The revised net appropriation for emergency judges each year is $422,000.

Something to note: Business court emergency judges are excluded from these rules and regulations.

Litigation funds

What good would a budget be without a few surprises? The final document contains a provision that would limit Gov. Roy Cooper’s access to state funds for litigation.

“No State funds shall be withdrawn from the State treasury to pay for litigation services provided by private counsel except as expressly authorized by an appropriation of the General Assembly. As used in this subsection, litigation services include legal work conducted in anticipation of, or in preparation for, any suit or action. As used in this section, private counsel includes any licensed attorney retained by, engaged by, or otherwise representing a department, officer, agency, institution, commission, bureau, or other organized activity of the State but does not include a licensed attorney who holds a permanent budgeted position in either the Department of Justice or the applicable department, officer, agency, institution, commission, bureau, or other organized activity of the State.”

It was fine when former Gov. Pat McCrory could use state funds for private counsel, but my how things change when a Democrat takes office.

Speaking of surprises

In a move that was completely under wraps until the final budget unveiling, lawmakers slashed the Department of Justice budget by almost $10 million.

Attorney General Josh Stein said the move will “gut” the state’s Justice Department and could result in the elimination of up to 123 positions from the legal services department.

“This move is as irresponsible as it is short-sighted,” he said. “I am deeply troubled that the General Assembly would direct the Department of Justice to eliminate the attorneys who work to prosecute criminals and keep them behind bars, who save taxpayers millions of dollars by defending against frivolous suits, who keep corporate bad actors in line, and who protect our clean air and water.

“These cuts would gut our Department and have damaging, long-term impacts on our state. Public safety would not be maintained at its current level. The taxpayer would be exposed to hundreds of millions of dollars in potential liability from lawsuits that we would not be able to defend appropriately.”

He added that North Carolinians never had a chance to weigh in on the dramatic shift in the way the state protects its people because it was not included in the House or Senate bills prior to the final budget.

“I have reached out to the leadership of the Senate and the House to urge them to reconsider,” Stein said. “I hope that we can work together to ensure that NCDOJ has the resources it needs to protect the people of North Carolina.”

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Final budget delivers hits to legal services, emergency judges, Department of Justice