Chief Justice convenes Judicial Council, sets focus on staffing, specialty courts and pre-trial practices

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley addressed Thursday the newly convened State Judicial Council. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley reconvened the North Carolina State Judicial Council this week for the first time in five years.

The group, which is chaired by Supreme Court Justice Robin Hudson, consists of representatives from every component of the court system, members of the judicial bar, and the public.

Beasley charged members with helping to set funding priorities, advise on matters concerning the operations of the courts, set performance standards for the courts, and monitor the administration of justice and effectiveness of the Judicial Branch in serving the public.

It’s expected the Council will meet quarterly and make recommendations for the judicial branch to act on.

Below are highlights from Beasley’s speech:

I’m asking a lot, but I also asked very good people and I know what you’re capable of, and so I cannot thank you enough for your willingness to really help us think about this courtroom work in the branch, what our goals really ought to be and how we’ve got to focus our efforts and how we ought to best use our resources for the people of the state of North Carolina. So, thank you — I know that you are all very busy. …

I’m truly honored to serve as the Chief Justice. There is a lot going on right now. It’s a really exciting time. I think you may have already heard about e-courts this morning, and you know that that really is a premiere initiative for the branch. I’m super excited that we have wonderful staff who are working on that. I think the more you come to know about it, you will really realize how we will transform the way we do business in the branch and how it will also free up resources and allow for greater access to court records and greater access to the courtroom, to the information we can provide to them as well.

I know you all know that Raise the Age was implemented and became effective Monday of this week. We have a lot going on there. We’re getting excited about the fact that we have an increasing number of school-justice partnerships around the state. We currently have, I think, 14, and about 40 more starting up, and so we’re really excited about that. What we do know is that school-justice partnerships have already shown that they will be effective in decreasing referrals from the schools to the criminal justice system, but what we also know is that that won’t be enough.

We know that we will need more resources to make sure that we can support the legislation the General Assembly has passed, and so we want you to help us think about what that ought to look like. We’ve certainly had input from judges and DAs and clerks and other folks across the branch, but your expertise will be really excited to hear for the year as you think through that process as well.

You all probably know at this point that the State Judicial Council was created in 1996, and it followed the report of a peoples’ commission that recognized that there would be changes in our society that were going require the state courts to grow, and that we needed to think about how to be responsible to the needs of the state or we would risk losing public confidence in the work of the branch.

The obligation was made then, and thankfully, 20 years later, Chief Justice [Mark] Martin realized the wisdom of bringing together a close group of people who really understood and cared about the judicial branch of government, created the commission on the administration of law and justice, and in that report, they found that the majority of North Carolinians believe that our courts are unfair and impartial.

It’s good that they did the work. It’s unfortunate that the priming was consistent with the priming of the peoples’ commission. So we just have to do more to make sure that people will believe in the work of the branch. We have great people working in this work, and certainly, we want people to believe the work is fair and impartial, and that we are doing our best to serve both.

We know that over the past decade, our court staff has been stretched farther and farther. In 2010, according to the National Center for State Courts, the judicial branch within the the U.S. court is 1,000 additional employees, and at the time, director John Smith informed the legislature and the Governor of those needs.

In the following two years, nearly 500 positions were eliminated in our courts that remain unequivocally staffed since that period time. At this time, North Carolina currently spends less per capita on its court system than any other state in the nation, despite having some of the highest court fees and despite being the 9th most populous state in the nation.

So I just know we can do better. We have great people and we need greater resources, and we need to really focus on how best to focus on our resources and ask for what we really need. By statute, this council is charged with advising McKinley [Wooten] and I about financial needs of the branch and matters of certain operations of our courts. …

For now I would ask you to focus your attention on working on several issues that I think wonderfully reflect the work of the commission administration of law and justice. We need to think about adequately staffing our branch of government; we need to think about innovative case management solutions such as drug treatment court, mental health court and family courts; and also have to work on evidence-based pre-trial justice practices that keep our communities safe. …

I hope that you will be willing to think outside the box, to challenge each other, to challenge us, frankly, to think about doing things differently. …

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