Free + clear: Improving North Carolina courts

 In Free + Clear

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When N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin created a commission to study the state’s judicial system in 2015, many business leaders assumed the primary outcome would be another round of public debate about how judges are selected.

Judicial selection has been a political issue in North Carolina for decades. Back when the state was controlled by Democrats, they took steps to keep Republicans out of the state’s judiciary. The most egregious tactic was the statewide election of Superior Court judges, leaving the few Republican-leaning counties unable to elect local judges of their choice.

As Republicans began winning legislative and gubernatorial races, they pushed to change North Carolina’s method for selecting appellate judges from partisan elections to an appointive system. Naturally, Democrats refused. Then, as Republicans began winning those partisan elections for state Court of Appeals and Supreme Court in the late 1990s, Democratic lawmakers took party labels off the ballot for appellate court races. The roles reversed after Gov. Pat McCrory’s victory in 2012, and Democrats had a string of judicial-election victories under the new nonpartisan system. Republicans began to favor either gubernatorial appointment or a return to partisan elections. They ended up enacting the latter.

As a member of Chief Justice Martin’s North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law & Justice, I know the topic of judicial selection got a lot of attention. Most of our deliberationsoccurred during the 2016 election cycle, which made it especially difficult to reach a consensus. In the end, the commission recommended changing how judges and justices are selected and retained without specifying a particular method.

But judicial selection probably isn’t the most pressing issue if our goals are to improve the administration of justice, save money for taxpayers and increase public confidence in the system. Providing a fair, orderly and efficient system of courts to adjudicate disputes and protect public safety is a core function of government and has a direct effect on a state’s business climate.

Fortunately, the Martin commission has identified many ways that North Carolina can manage its existing funds to improve the administration of its state courts.

For example, the commission found that the state can do a better job of dividing its workload of civil cases into categories — simple, general and complex — and then assigning appropriate resources to reduce court delays and apply greater expertise as needed. North Carolina also has a surprising variety of local rules of procedure across the state. Adopting statewide standards for case management and other procedures can help ease confusion and reduce costs.

Other recommendations will require more tax dollars, though an upfront investment can generate big savings in the long run. The most obvious example is technology, where computer and information systems are woefully inadequate. Can you imagine the time and money civil litigants could save if more court business involved online filing and videoconferencing?

In this age of political polarization and a decline of civil discourse, the Martin commission worked hard to include diverse perspectives, aired lots of controversial issues, hosted constructive dialogue and produced recommendations that reflect a consensus across the political spectrum.

How North Carolina selects its judges will continue to be a political hot potato. The Martin commission couldn’t magically change that. But many other court reforms are ready for publicconsumption — and immediate implementation.

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