The Future of NC: Full court press

 In Features, February 2016

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Anyone frustrated by a pending court case in North Carolina has a friend these days in Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin, who told state lawmakers last year that “a stable and predictable legal system is a key driver of economic development in a globally competitive marketplace.” It was the first time since 2003 that a chief justice had been invited to give a State of the Judiciary address to the General Assembly. One reason for the gap, perhaps, is that speeches focusing on the shoestring budgets of the state courts aren’t easy listening. Martin pointed out that North Carolina is one of the lowest-ranking states for per-capita spending on the judicial branch.

North Carolina now budgets about $485 million annually for its courts. After cutting funding over the last decade, state lawmakers responded to Martin’s complaints about a lack of resources last year by boosting the system’s budget by 4.5%, or about $20 million. The system is understaffed by 536 positions, or almost 10% of its total payroll, Martin told lawmakers. North Carolina’s courts eliminated about 500 positions between 2009-14, while its technology cannot adequately support the existing 6,000 judicial-branch employees and 2 million cases resolved each year.

Having underfunded courts has real-world implications. The median time to resolve a child-support case was 448 days in 2014, about triple the time it took six years earlier, according to UNC Chapel Hill law professor Barbara Fedders. “A child whose nonprimary custodian is refusing to pay adequate child support now likely has to wait up to a year for the case to be resolved, which can mean the child must go without adequate food, clothes and other necessities,” she says. Underfunding “is particularly unfair because courts actually generate revenue for the state.” In 2013-14, the courts sent about $740 million to the state and citizens after collecting court costs and fees. That was 60% more than the state spent to maintain courts and provide constitutionally required services.

In Wake County, assistant district attorneys take turns tending the front desk and answering the phone because they don’t have the administrative staff to cover it, says District Attorney Lorrin Freeman. Their time would be better spent meeting with victims and preparing cases, she says. In Mecklenburg County, the courts operate at a 17% staffing shortage, Clerk of Court Elisa Chinn-Gary says. Starting pay is about $28,223 annually, prompting many employees to work second jobs, she says.

“From a public perspective, justice delayed is justice denied,” says Freeman, a former Wake clerk of court. “You can’t put the court system on a starvation diet and expect it to meet the expectations of the public.”

To build support for improving the system, Martin last year convened a commission to study five key areas, including technology, public trust and legal professionalism. Made up of about 65 lawyers, judges, professors and some businesspeople, the group plans to make recommendations for the 2017 legislative session. A wide range of issues is being studied, including judges’ pay. Superior Court judges make less than some beginning associates at North Carolina’s largest law firms and are paid less than peers in neighboring states, says commission member Martin Brinkley, dean of the UNC School of Law. North Carolina ranks 40th for salaries for state Supreme Court justices, 32nd for Superior Court judges and 40th for District Court judges, he says, citing National Center for State Courts data. Martin’s salary is $144,000, while South Carolina pays its chief justice $151,000, and Virginia, $201,000. “We are not keeping pace with salaries that would attract our most highly qualified lawyers to the bench,” Brinkley says. “And that’s a grave issue that the state is not confronting.”

Lower salaries aren’t stopping groups and people from investing to influence state courts, however. North Carolina ranked second in the country in money spent on state Supreme Court races in 2014, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School. More than $6 million was spent on campaigns by lobbyists, lawyers, businesses and other groups. More partisanship is likely after legislators passed a law that requires ballots of N.C. Court of Appeals candidates to include their party affiliation.

Getting the state courts’ technology into the 21st century is also a key area of study by the commission. Improvements in electronic data storage and access to information are particularly needed, says Chinn-Gary. Attorneys, law enforcement officials and citizens should be able to file documents, access records or schedule events electronically, she says. Such changes would “reduce error and delay and exponentially increase efficiency.”

Past commissions directed to improve the courts have produced some reforms, none of them significant enough to make North Carolina a national leader. It’s not clear if this group will be any different, says Will Robinson, executive director of Martin’s commission. “Are we likely to come up with something that really works? I don’t know. I don’t know whether we are in an environment that is conducive to meaningful reform,” he says. “I think there is something to be said for a group of concerned citizens drawing attention to the court system and keeping the light focused on it.”

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