Catharine Biggs Arrowood, a partner with the Parker Poe law firm in Raleigh, was expected to be sworn in Saturday as the N.C. Bar Association’s newest president. Arrowood, 62, is the association’s 120th president and only the fifth woman to hold the post since the organization’s founding in 1899. For the next year, she will lead an organization with 20,000 active members.
Originally from Lumberton, Arrowood graduated from Wake Forest University Law School in 1976. After going to work for the state Attorney General’s Office for a year, she joined former Gov. Terry Sanford’s law firm, which later merged with Parker Poe.
Arrowood is a commercial litigator who specializes in international arbitration. She takes over at a time when the judicial branch is once again facing the possibility of substantial cuts to its budget. The state Senate’s budget includes a 10 percent reduction in funding for the indigent defense service and a 24 percent reduction in the Administrative Office of the Court’s technology division, which is responsible for handling the state’s transition to electronic filing.
Arrowood spoke with staff writer David Bracken last week about the proposed cuts and her priorities for her term in office. The following excerpts from the interview have been edited for space and clarity.
On the bar’s role: We see our role as being one of providing information and saying, ‘Look this isn’t going to work as a practical matter and here’s why.’ ... We are not politically oriented, and we are not busy promoting one perspective over another. Our goal is to see that these courts function properly and that people can get to them and get a decision and get the right help that they need when they go to court.
On the biggest issues facing bar: Our mission is to really promote the judicial system, to ensure that it remains fair and impartial and to see that every North Carolinian has a fair chance, if you will, when they have to take their disputes to court. And it’s become more of a challenge to meet those goals in recent years with both changes in the way that judges are selected as well as the increasing pressure on state budgets. Unfortunately, the judicial budget seems to be a good chopping block. I think there’s a lack of understanding of how important the courts are and what the courts do. ... What I want to do is to simply raise the external communications about these issues to a higher level. I think it’s really important for us to clearly communicate with our legislature about the financial needs of our courts and also to ensure that the way judges go about being selected is not a way that causes the public to lose confidence in the judges who hear their cases.
On the flood of money being spent on judicial races: That’s a real challenge in a state where we elect judges, because it’s real easy to engage in partisan politics. It’s real easy for outside money to fund attack ads. And when those two things happen in judicial races it really damages all lawyers and all judges and it really hurts our judicial system, its integrity. Because it makes the public think that judges are not fair, they’re not impartial, they can be bought. ... I think the focus has to be on how they get elected and to try to encourage the campaigns to conduct themselves in a more responsible way. I would like to see ... everyone who runs for judicial office denounce these attack ads and publicly state that they’re wrong because they don’t just hurt the candidate that they’re aimed at, they hurt the reputation of the whole judicial system.
On protecting the judicial branch from legislative budget cuts: We need to do a better job of making sure that people who don’t have to go to court on a regular basis understand how important those courts are for people who do have to go. And that courts are not just necessary to create a positive business environment. Courts are there to help individuals, they’re there to help families, they’re there to help veterans. The focus it seems in the last several years has been on making sure that courts are fair for businesses, and I very much agree with that because that’s mostly who I represent. But we can’t lose sight of the fact that we have great needs for our courts to address family issues, prosecute criminal cases – there are many other things that go on in our courts besides business disputes. ... We have had cuts in the judicial budget in North Carolina each year for as many years as I can remember. ... We are one of the few states in the country that does not have electronic filing in the courts. The only place we have electronic filing is in the business court. That’s great for business but isn’t so hot for the rest of our citizens. ... We have clerks of court and deputy clerks. We have the staff that makes the court work. We have translators that our needed. Cuts have been aimed at all of these different segments, and we need all them to make the system work right.
On cuts to legal aid organizations and the indigent defense service: We only add and make things more difficult for the court when people are coming into court without counsel. If a judge has got somebody appearing in front of them without a lawyer that judge has got to spend a lot more time with that case because you’ve got to be helpful to the person coming in. ... And a lot of the time they’re there because they can’t afford a lawyer, they don’t know how to find one. ... But if you sit in a courtroom every day and you watch what really happens, you realize that cutting those services not only hurts the individual for whom the services are being made available but it actually hurts our system of justice, because it impacts the overall operation of our courts in a negative way.
On the difficulty many lawyers are having finding jobs: With the recession and the advent of so many different law schools across the country, we do have a flood of young lawyers who can’t get jobs. One of the things that Alan Duncan, who is my predecessor, has done is set up a committee to examine this issue. This is something the American Bar Association is looking at nationally to try and match up this glut of young lawyers coming out of law school with the enormous need for legal advice. We haven’t hit on a perfect device yet, but that’s something we’re looking at very carefully.
Bracken: 919-829-4548; Twitter: @brackendavid