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A Worthy Cause

A Worthy Cause

On March 15, 2017, in a ceremony at the Supreme Court of North Carolina, the North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice (NCCALJ) presented its Final Report. This report is only the third effort of its kind in the history of the North Carolina judicial branch, following the work of the Bell Commission in the 1950s and ’60s and the report of the Medlin Commission in the 1990s. 

The NCCALJ initiative coincided with the 50th anniversary of several judicial branch milestones that arose from the Bell Commission’s recommendations. The timing is appropriate because, I hope that, 50 years from now, future generations of North Carolinians will mark the NCCALJ’s recommendations as another set of significant achievements for our state’s courts.

In February 2014, I announced a plan to strengthen our judicial system. Having served as a judge in the trial division and in our state’s appellate courts for over two decades, I knew firsthand the systemic challenges facing our judicial branch. Almost two decades had passed since the last full review of our court system, and our state had changed significantly. The top priority of my administration-of-justice plan was to start a new commission, so, in September of 2015, I convened the NCCALJ. The commission was directed to undertake a comprehensive and independent review of North Carolina’s court system and make recommendations for improving the administration of justice.

The NCCALJ’s membership was drawn statewide from business, academia, the judicial branch, the legislative branch, the executive branch, the legal profession and the non-profit sector. Each of the commission’s 65 members served on one of five committees: Civil Justice, chaired by Dean David F. Levi of Duke Law School; Criminal Investigation and Adjudication, chaired by Judge William A. Webb, retired federal magistrate judge; Legal Professionalism, chaired by Catharine Biggs Arrowood, former NCBA president and a law partner at Parker Poe; Public Trust and Confidence, chaired by J. Bradley Wilson, CEO of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina; and Technology, chaired by Supreme Court Justice Barbara A. Jackson. Thirteen non-voting ex officio members also participated in the commission’s work. Each committee was served by one or two reporters, and all of the committees were supported by three full-time commission staff members.

The commission met four times as a full body. Individual committees met many more times on their own, for a total of 62 meetings over a 15-month period. The National Center for State Courts, other experts and organizations that attended these meetings, and the NCCALJ’s research associate ensured that committee discussions were well informed and data driven. Seeking as much public input as possible, the commission conducted four well-attended public hearings in the summer of 2016 and also solicited comments online from judicial branch stakeholders and members of the general public. In addition, the polling centers at Elon University and High Point University conducted a series of surveys on public trust and confidence on the NCCALJ’s behalf in the fall of 2015. The results of these polls helped inform the commission’s thinking.

The commission’s work has been collaborative, innovative and thoughtful. Each committee identified and then deliberated about a diverse set of issues and, through healthy dialogue, arrived at empirically grounded, fact-based recommendations. The committees’ efforts focused on how North Carolina’s courts could best meet the public’s expectations for a modern court system. The committee reports are unified by three fundamental principles of sound judicial administration—fairness, accessibility and efficiency. Those principles echo the Judicial Branch’s constitutional mandate to administer justice “without favor, denial, or delay.” N.C. Constitution, art. I, § 19.

We owe a debt of gratitude to the commissioners and reporters who collectively volunteered over 4,000 hours to the NCCALJ. Included among those were more than 20 practicing attorneys and all seven of the state’s law school deans. I also appreciate the many lawyers who addressed the committees on various topics, and those who provided comments at one of the NCCALJ’s public hearings or submitted comments online during the commission’s public comments period. I am especially grateful to NCBA President (and NCCALJ commissioner) Kearns Davis and the leadership of the Bar Association for their enthusiastic support of the NCCALJ.

The NCCALJ’s commitment to tireless collaboration and public input is perhaps best exemplified by the Criminal Investigation and Adjudication Committee’s recommendation on juvenile reinvestment. The committee recommends raising the juvenile age—that is, the age at which a youth is prosecuted in adult criminal court instead of appearing in juvenile court—from 16-years-old to 18-years-old for nonviolent crimes. This recommendation enjoys support from a broad range of organizations, such as the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association, the N.C. Chamber of Commerce’s Legal Institute, and groups as diverse as the ACLU and the John Locke Foundation. The NCCALJ’s public comments period last August evidenced a high level of support as well. A Civitas poll released this March again confirmed this public sentiment, showing 70 percent public support for raising the juvenile age. Legislation to implement the recommendation was recently introduced in the General Assembly with strong bipartisan support. I am hopeful that juvenile reinvestment will be enacted into law this session.

The majority of the NCCALJ’s recommendations are within the judicial branch’s authority to implement on its own. Almost all of the recommendations require involvement by the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts’ (NCAOC) various offices and divisions, including Technology Services, Research and Planning, Court Services, Court Programs and the Governmental Affairs Office, which can continue working on recommendations, such as juvenile reinvestment, that require legislative changes. Accordingly, the NCCALJ co-chairs have recommended that the NCAOC director take primary responsibility for carrying out the commission’s work. The director has initiated key steps in this regard, including an important restructuring of NCAOC to position that organization to implement the commission’s recommendations. In addition, NCAOC has already acted on several recommendations, including the creation of a judicial fellows program that will provide research and support to trial court judges; a revamp of the NCcourts.org website to increase transparency and access to the court system; a speakers bureau that has enlisted civics education speakers who are available to speak in all 100 counties; and the creation of NCAOC’s e-Courts division, which will be responsible for the five-to-seven-year process of implementing the Technology Committee’s strategic technology plan.

I am confident that the NCCALJ’s recommendations will create a framework for dramatic, systemic improvement in the administration of justice in North Carolina. The commission’s work will help ensure that North Carolina’s judicial branch meets the needs and expectations that the people of North Carolina have for fair, accessible, and efficiently managed courts.

Please join me in applauding the NCCALJ’s work, reading the NCCALJ’s final report, and engaging with its recommendations. And please join me in making a commitment to improving our justice system. The power to administer justice is a sacred public trust that must be guarded carefully by each generation. In the words of President Theodore Roosevelt, let us be those who spend ourselves “in a worthy cause; who at the best know[] in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if [we] fail[], at least fail[] while daring greatly, so that [our] place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Mark Martin is Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of North Carolina. The NCCALJ’s Final Report can be downloaded at www.nccalj.org/final-report/