Senate plan to cut 12 judges, sweep out commissioners faces obstacles in House

cjarvis@newsobserver.comFebruary 10, 2013 

— A plan by Senate Republicans to take control of several key state commissions – criticized by Democrats as an audacious power grab – is likely to meet a more skeptical audience once it hits the House.

The reason is that some House Republicans might have a problem with a provision in the bill to eliminate 12 special superior court judges, which some have warned would add to an already overburdened caseload and be an unconstitutional violation of the separation of powers.

“I think we’re going to be very slow and deliberate before we start tinkering with the judicial system,” House Majority Leader Edgar Starnes, a Republican from Hickory, said Friday. “It’s not on a fast track, by any means.

“We’re going to take our time, and if we make any changes, make changes that are good, not just changes for the sake of change.”

The go-slower signal from the House comes as top officials from the Administrative Office of the Courts stepped up their efforts to convince legislators not to cut the positions.

“Our special superior court judges are fully utilized and contribute significantly to the administration of justice statewide,” AOC Director John W. Smith II said. “Their elimination would have a significant impact on our courts.”

Debate over judges’ value

Just how necessary the judges are was disputed during the Senate floor debate on Tuesday. Sen. Buck Newton, a Republican who represents Johnston, Wilson and Nash counties, challenged Democrats’ claim that the judges handle a significant caseload.

“I’ve had information that they average less than 10 hours a week on the bench,” said Newton, a lawyer, without explaining where that information came from. Newton couldn’t be reached for comment over the weekend.

Data from the AOC suggests the judges handle far more cases than could be disposed of in 10 hours a week or less. While the data isn’t broken down by individual cases and judges, AOC estimates that 9.8 percent of the 204,000 cases disposed of in 2012 were handled by the 12 special superior court judges.

That amounts to approximately 20,000 cases heard by those dozen judges in a year – about 1,600 cases each.

The legislative research staff estimated that doing away with the judges would save $2 million in the next fiscal year and $2.6 million in the fiscal year after that. The special superior court judges are paid $126,000 a year in addition to benefits.

But the staff report also says retired judges might have to be called up out of retirement to handle any increased caseloads, at a cost of $400 a day.

Like a ‘utility baseball player’

Special judges are appointed by the governor and hear cases around the state. There are 15 of them; the other three, who handle business court cases, were spared from elimination in the bill. The 12 judges who could lose their positions mostly handle criminal cases, as well as some civil and special proceeding cases and a handful of estates.

Judge Lane Williamson, a Mecklenburg County-based special superior court judge, says he and his colleagues crisscross the state filling in for resident judges when they’re on vacation or tied up in lengthy trials, for example, or to take on a lengthy case to avoid burdening the local judge. They are also brought in on sensitive cases, such as in matters where there are conflicts of interest involving local judges.

Over the past couple of months, Williamson has presided in courtrooms in seven counties, from Brunswick on the coast to Haywood on the Tennessee border.

“It’s like being a utility baseball player,” Williamson said Saturday, “except you’re in the lineup every day and you might change your position every week.”

Debate in House, Senate

The controversy over the judges slowed down the bill last week but didn’t keep the Senate from approving it. The legislation had popped up unexpectedly in a committee on Tuesday – written into an innocuous bill about eliminating outdated boards – and moved quickly.

Most of the debate in the Senate Rules Committee focused on the bill’s provisions that would sweep out the mostly Democratic-appointed members of the Utilities Commission, Industrial Commission, Environmental Management Commission, Coastal Resources Commission and others. Those bodies interpret state laws and have a direct effect on ratepayers, injured workers and development.

When the bill hit the Senate floor the next day, Democrats warned that the provision removing judges could be unconstitutional, because the General Assembly isn’t allowed to fire individual judges, except through the repeal process. Republicans argued the legislation was allowable because 12 positions, not individuals, were being eliminated.

But Republicans also said that their ultimate plan is to replace these special judges – who were appointed by Democratic governors – with judges elected in local districts.

Last year, the AOC avoided deep budget cuts that had been proposed. That round of cuts would have eliminated all 10 of the state’s trial court administrators and 93 ½ district attorney support staff positions.

Jarvis: 919-829-4576

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