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President's Perspective: Court Funding -- Justice in North Carolina

President's Perspective: Court Funding -- Justice in North Carolina

By Catharine Arrowood
We recently witnessed both the best and the worst of our judicial system. Through the persistence of the Innocence Inquiry Commission, evidence was located that freed two Robeson County men after thirty years of wrongful imprisonment.

The Robeson County district attorney, Johnson Britt, at the hearing, publicly acknowledged the role of the prosecutor as an officer of the court with duties to act truthfully and fairly. Following his argument and comments, the court freed the individuals.

Clearly, a terrible mistake was made; at the same time, this case demonstrates the integrity of our system of justice in North Carolina. Few states admit their errors in this way.

Whether a life or money or a child is in jeopardy, our court system must operate fairly, efficiently and independently. Our 1966-era system needs a thorough look and possibly overhaul and there could not be a better time to do this work.

We are in increasing danger of losing the functionality of this branch of government.

In 1966, in a major reorganization, our judicial branch began operating a unified statewide system that eliminated the piecemeal systems that had grown up over the last decades. This unified system provided a level playing field for citizens in all counties to seek resolution of disputes. While state level funding was implemented for key judicial items, funding for certain court needs, such as buildings, remained at the local level.

Since 1966, our state has enjoyed extraordinary but uneven growth. Citizens are not distributed equally across the state. And legal problems and issues have become more specialized over time.

In response, we have created a variety of “specialty” courts, including special family courts and special business courts. These specialty courts, which have proven over and over again to be valuable and worthwhile in our increasingly complex economy, are not geographically accessible to all of our citizens and are funded in some counties but not others. At the same time, each county, regardless of population or need, continues to have the same basic “non-specialty” court structure devised in the unified plan from 1966.  

Compounding this problem is year after year of court funding cuts.

Some statistics:

  • According to the State Office of Management and Budget, North Carolina enjoyed population growth of 17.3% between April 2000 and 2009. The growth continued through the recession with an increase in population of 3.4% between 2010 and July 2013. North Carolina as the ninth most populated state is also geographically large, covering nearly 49,000 square miles.

More people mean more divorces, child custody fights, debt collection actions, probates, criminal proceedings and appeals.

  • As of January 2014, our state had 9,848,060 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau; 112 Superior Court judges (15 of them special judges) and 270 District Court judges served that population across 49,000 square miles. (See NCAOC Report on Court Information Technology, p. 17). About 93% of the state level budget today consists of personnel and salary.
  • Even though the courts generate revenue for our state through filing fees and fines, those funds are year after year applied to other purposes. For example, in 2009-2010, total appropriations to the judicial branch from the General Fund were $466,928,250. During that same period, the AOC collected $668,445,369. So $201,517,119 went for other purposes.
  • During the recession, while court funding was cut, the amount of collections increased and the amount of funds going to non-court items increased. Specifically, in 2013-2014, total appropriations for the judicial branch from the General Fund were cut to $456,926,252; during the same period, the Administrative Office of the Courts reported increased collections of $734,902,426. So $277,976,174 went somewhere else.

We recognize that all of these funds are not “revenue.” But this illustrates the point that courts, which are critical to freedom and justice, are not money losers.

  • During this same period, from 2008 to FY 2013-2014, the AOC was forced to cut and cut and cut again to the point that justice is in jeopardy. Most of those cuts were to personnel, freezes on salary and hiring. The National Center for State Courts reported that in fiscal 2012-2013, North Carolina was one of only seven states that cut court funding from the previous year. North Carolina, with the ninth largest population in the country, is now the third lowest in spending on its judicial system.

Simply put: while our population has been increasing by double digits and the technology and tools available to better serve a large and widespread population have been improving, we cut spending on our courts from 3% of our state budget to 2.2%. No wonder too many of our court personnel work extra jobs to make ends meet. No wonder we have been unable to implement a statewide electronic filing and case management system. No wonder we have insufficient money to conduct jury trials and pay court reporters.  

Now is the time to do something about this. Some people have the view that our elected representatives believe that lawyers are bad, judges are even worse and, by definition, the judicial branch is being operated wastefully and poorly. We beg to differ.

Since the November election, the North Carolina Bar Association has been fully engaged in communicating with our legislative leadership about these problems. We are pleased to report that in most quarters, the problems originating from continued court funding cuts is acknowledged.

Although not widely reported, there is a plain and clear recognition by legislators that an underfunded and technologically weak court system directly and negatively impacts the economic well-being of our state. We are encouraged to report that we have repeatedly heard pledges to address these problems.

Responding to the recent calls to restore funding will not solve things however. The problem deserves closer scrutiny. Piecemeal legislation and patchwork funding will not lead to an efficient solution. We must create a single joint legislative and court study commission, composed of folks from a variety of backgrounds, to undertake an in depth examination of how we are delivering justice in North Carolina.

As we did in 1966, we must make decisions about changes in structure and funding that are data and fact driven, not driven by individual experience in isolated situations. Our county-by-county system, workable in 1966, is no longer workable in a state where our urban and rural areas have such disparate resources. Implementing truly efficient solutions is highly likely to require that court officials, most of whom are elected, accept that some positions will be abolished and consolidated. A more regional approach may be needed. This will present a great political challenge.

We are confident that our state can take on this challenge. While we undertake this study, we must restore court funding in the next budget year. We must first address court personnel hiring and pay issues. Then we can begin to address electronic filing and technology issues.

Doing these two things will send the right signal to our citizens as well as businesses and individuals considering relocation to our state while we move forward with a more long term and in depth analysis of how we are delivering justice.

Moving our courts forward is good for our citizens, good for business and good for our economy.

The time has come for forward movement.

Catharine Arrowood is the 120th president of the North Carolina Bar Association. This column originally appeared in the February 2015 edition of North Carolina Lawyer magazine.