NC courts are short of personnel, and that threatens justice

December 2, 2013 

What happens when courts are overloaded with cases, when the technology system that supports those courts is woefully outdated and when judges, rather than get adequate funding from the state, have to go to counties for money?

We’re finding out in North Carolina, where all of those problems are present.

Legislators are hearing all about this, with Republicans touting hearings on the court system as a way to find efficiencies. Despite restoring some money, their budget-cutting hasn’t helped, and the rhetoric about efficiency isn’t fixing anything.

The truth is, it takes money and it takes a lot of people to run the state’s courts, from the judges to courtroom personnel to those who maintain the records that are vital to the administration of justice.

John W. Smith, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, offered lawmakers a sad picture: About $100 million is needed to hire 700 staff people. The court’s computer system is a dinosaur. Fines and fees relied upon to support the courts are an unpredictable source of funding.

The courts, a bedrock of our democracy, can’t afford unpredictability.

Efficiency? The term in this case cuts both ways. In the minds of Republican lawmakers, it means little more than cutting funding. But for those who are in the system, from overworked staffers to attorneys and judges, it means more money to make the system run more efficiently.

It would be unfair not to say that the court system was allowed to suffer from funding shortages and a lack of attention by Democrats as well as Republicans. Perhaps the crisis was not severe enough to get the attention of lawmakers. But now it is.

A shortage of 700 people in a system in which there are 6,000 employees is a crisis not coming, but one that has arrived.

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