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President's Perspective: We've Been Slimed

President's Perspective: We've Been Slimed

Catharine Biggs Arrowood of Raleigh was installed as the 120th president of the North Carolina Bar Association on Saturday evening, June 21, at the NCBA Annual Meeting in Wilmington.

With her daughter, Jeannette, holding the Bible, Arrowood was administered the oath of office by Chief Justice Sarah Parker of the N.C. Supreme Court.

Arrowood practices law in Raleigh with Parker Poe, where she has been a partner since 1982. She joined the firm, then known as Sanford Cannon Adams and McCullough, in 1977. Prior to joining Parker Poe, Arrowood served as an associate attorney general for the N.C. Department of Justice.

Following her installation, Arrowood addressed the audience at the Wilmington Convention Center. Her remarks follow.

By Catharine Arrowood
We all know that, in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, “the establishment of justice” is identified as a key principal.  And for good reason. Without justice, there is no perfect Union, domestic Tranquility, common defense, general welfare or blessings of liberty, the other things listed in the preamble.

Justice is facing challenging times for many reasons. I will mention just a few.

For more than a century, North Carolina has elected its judges. Electing judges remains very popular with the public. Over 30 states use some form of elections to select judges.

But recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions have unleashed a flood of outside money in our judicial races. This money and the ads they spawn have had and will have a major and negative impact on the reputation of lawyers and judges in our state.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, in the 2011-12 election cycle, the first following the Citizens United decision, special interest groups and political parties spent an unprecedented 24 million dollars on state court races. This was a whopping increase of 11 million dollars over what was spent in the cycle just before the Citizens United decision.

We have already seen a repeat in the May 2014 primary and should brace ourselves for more in the fall.

This situation causes the public to lose confidence in the integrity of the judiciary and slanders the reputation of lawyers. Like Bill Murray in Ghostbusters, we are being slimed.

Another issue causing loss of public confidence in the judiciary is the elimination of transparency in judicial discipline proceedings.

If you go to the website of the Judicial Standards Commission today, you will see a blank where notices of pending judicial discipline were traditionally posted for the public to see. The space now contains the following: “All proceedings for judicial discipline are confidential.”

The Judicial Standards Commission, which had operated effectively for decades, has now been forbidden to freely inform the public of the complaints it has received, the nature of its investigation or the action it has taken.  Only the N.C. Supreme Court, the members of which are themselves subject to the Commission’s own process, can reveal the action of the Commission.

The NCBA asked the governor to veto this bill. This was the first time the NCBA, founded in 1899, has ever sought a veto.  In fact, every living past president of this organization signed a letter to the governor requesting veto.  The bill was signed. And now the Judicial Standards Commission proceeds away from the eye of the public … at least until the Supreme Court decides the public is entitled to know.

When this unfortunate piece of legislation was on the governor’s desk last summer, I received a call from a reporter in one of our smaller towns. This reporter had himself observed and reported a Superior Court judge’s improper conduct to the Commission in the past. The judge in question was ultimately disciplined.

The reporter asked me: Ms. Arrowood, do I understand that if I or a citizen of our community filed that complaint today, we could not find out what happened to our complaint unless and until it reached the N.C. Supreme Court and it approved releasing the information?

The answer was yes. He then said: what is happening to justice in this state? I had no answer.

This erosion of public confidence in the judiciary is not just anecdotal. It is real.

A recent poll by the Brennan Center for Justice found that an overwhelming number of voters believe that special interest spending influences judicial decision making. The Center found that  “almost nine in ten American voters believe that campaign cash is affecting courtroom decisions.”

Our 20,000 member organization must do a better job of educating the public and our legislature about the things that are necessary to keep our fair and impartial judicial system intact in North Carolina.  Our judiciary is not well understood and the good work of lawyers goes unnoticed on both sides of the aisles. We need to get out the word that we actually have a fair and impartial court system and that the lawyers who advocate in it are the pillars of our communities. 

How are we going to do this?

Alan Duncan and Rhoda Billings will chair a new committee, the Open Courts Initiative, to bring together the many already existing parts of our organization that focus on court related issues. working with our Legislative Advisory Committee, the NCBA  will become even more focused on our legislative agenda and building grass roots support for our courts and the lawyers who practice  in communities all across this state.

Next, we will move our Judicial Performance Evaluation survey to a new level. Under the able leadership of Nancy Norelli and many others who envisioned this project, the Bar Association conducts a survey to gather objective information on all candidates for Superior and District Court positions.

It has taken years and a lot of time and money to develop this survey. The 2014 election cycle will mark only the second time that the public will have access to the survey results. We are trying to improve the availability of this information and will be shortly launching a website ElectNCJudges.org dedicated to the JPE results.  While the bar is committed to continue this survey for the foreseeable future, a permanent place for this work and more permanent funding is needed.

It is hard to compete with the scare tactics and misinformation contained in current political advertising.  We must do a better job of publicizing the availability of this real world, objective information about judicial performance.

Next, we are going to work hard on court funding issues.

In 2003, John Medlin, then the CEO of Wachovia Bank, and Rhoda Billings, our former Chief Justice, wrote a detailed article on the increasingly limited funds made available to N.C. courts in the face of a booming population.

Much of what they wrote about remains unaddressed and unfunded some 10 years later. I learned recently that South Carolina has funded and has underway a statewide electronic court filing and case management system. North Carolina has none.

Too much money is being spent in the hope of manipulating the public into electing judges with a partisan view and too little of it is being appropriated for court operations. We must change this.

We must stand up for Legal Aid and indigent defense funding. It is the right thing. And it is a practical necessity for the proper functioning of our courts.

In N.C., we have a particularly acute need. For example, nearly 10 percent of the population in our state, some 700,000 people, are veterans who, along with their families, often fall below the poverty line.  Their legal needs are not met despite our best efforts.

We must call on those who are running for judicial positions to avoid partisan politics and to publicly condemn those third parties who fund the advertising that slanders the good name of our sitting judges and the candidates for their positions.

Our Legislative Advisory Committee is also hard at work under the able leadership of Paul Meggett. In aid of the Committee’s grassroots initiative, the NCBA has invested in software that will make communications with elected officials across the state more effective and efficient and tied to the local lawyers who know them. If we call on you to contact your legislator, please do so.

Finally, we are about to roll out a new website and are increasingly using social media to communicate our positions. Follow me on Twitter! (@cbarrowood).

We have a challenge ahead of us and we will need every one of you to help us in this effort.

As Chief Justice John Marshall said in the early days of our republic: the greatest scourge an angry Heaven can inflict upon an ungrateful and sinning people is an ignorant, corrupt and dependent judiciary.

In the coming year, we must do all we can to avoid a scourge in North Carolina.

Thank you.

Catharine Arrowood is the 120thpresident of the North Carolina Bar Association. This column originally appeared in the August 2014 edition of North Carolina Lawyer magazine.