It is an American article of faith that the path to justice runs through the courts. In a country where the reins of wealth and power are held by a privileged few, the courts are our great levelers. They are the haven where distinctions in the human condition yield to the rule of law, the refuge where Lincoln’s national credo – “the proposition that all men are created equal” – comes closest to fulfillment.
The most eloquent constitution in the world is worthless with no one to enforce it. Are citizens better off when justice is swift for criminals who endanger public safety? When domestic violence is prevented or stopped? When the rules of commerce are enforced? Is justice less essential to our common life than education and health care? The answers are plain. The courts are society’s emergency room. But in North Carolina, our continuing failure to provide adequate judicial funding is straining the courts and fraying our justice system.
At its core, the administration of justice is a human enterprise. Since North Carolina’s judicial budget consists almost entirely of personnel costs – 92 percent – reductions in court funding directly curtail public access to the justice system. This has led harried judges and struggling prosecutors to go hat in hand to local governments. That may put a finger in the dike, but it also threatens the integrity of a uniform statewide system that for decades has made sure the justice meted out in prosperous counties like Wake and Mecklenburg is no different from what citizens in Polk and Perquimans receive.
State lawmakers have tried to make the courts more self-sufficient by increasing the tariff for filing a lawsuit and hiking up the fines judges can impose. Today, user fees cover a substantial part of the judicial branch budget. A committee of legislators is looking for ways to save money by making the courts more efficient. A worthy goal. But welcome as the savings would be, they will prove insignificant by comparison with the state’s overall needs. Lacking the power to tax for their own support and bound to follow the law even when it’s unpopular, our courts fall prey to other executive and legislative branch political priorities. The result is dismal: The budget of the judiciary is now less than 2 percent of the overall state budget.
North Carolina’s fundamental law, our state constitution, speaks to court funding in direct terms: “All courts shall be open; every person ... shall have remedy by due course of law ” for injuries to person or property. The General Assembly cannot deprive the judiciary “of any power or jurisdiction that rightfully pertains to it as a co-ordinate department of the government.”
Has the General Assembly crossed the line by diminishing funding so much that the court’s constitutional duty to administer “right and justice without favor, denial or delay” is at risk? That question raises sensitive issues. In more than one of its opinions, the N.C. Supreme Court has recognized the inherent power of the courts to do all things necessary for proper administration of justice, albeit in a spirit of mutual cooperation among the three branches of government. There is always the potential for the Supreme Court to take a step further and follow the lead of high courts in other states that have ordered higher levels of support. But that hasn’t been the North Carolina way. We’ve tried to provide for our courts by seeking harmony among the branches rather than demanding support through judicial fiat.
The more we leave the judiciary strapped, the more we endanger public safety by delaying resolution of criminal cases, hurt vulnerable children and the elderly and diminish our freedom. As inadequate judicial funding harms real people, the courts lose the confidence of the very public that counts on them for relief. The erosion is both stealthy and insidious: So long as the lights in the courthouse are on, traffic tickets can be paid and estate papers filed, crisis seems far away.
Faith in the rule of law doesn’t just happen. It is hard to create and easy to destroy. We are already giving our fellow North Carolinians a ration card for justice – a first step on a path to contempt for the law. We cannot allow the courts to become our last priority. The stakes are far too high.
Martin Brinkley of Raleigh and John Wester of Charlotte are past presidents of the North Carolina Bar Association.