In another time, with another General Assembly, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin would have what’s known in his profession as an open and shut case. North Carolina’s courts are woefully underfunded and have been for a long time. In a rare address to the General Assembly this week, Martin pleaded for substantially more funding, not just on behalf of the court system’s infrastructure but for justice.
A system that does not work efficiently, that is stressed, does not, and cannot, deliver to the people the fair system they deserve and rightfully expect.
“We are now confronting a situation where the justice system is unable to promptly serve those who turn to us for help,” Martin told lawmakers.
He also said that public confidence in the judicial system is harmed when that system is overwhelmed. And he noted that the problems had been building for decades and that the fault does not rest with one political party.
Some 3 million cases go through the system annually, yet technology is outdated at the very time it should be working best. That leads to delays, to inefficiency. And this, he said, is a system that by order of the state constitution is supposed to work “without delay.”
The chief justice said there are over 500 unfilled positions in the court system, and that shortage covers all 100 counties. The positions include in particular court clerks, who help keep the system moving, In some counties, that means sheriff’s deputies and magistrate judges have to get involved in paperwork that normally would be handled by clerks.
To his credit, the chief justice, a soft-spoken, 16-year veteran of the court, asked a pretty tough question of tight-fisted lawmakers in talking about the shortages: “How can we explain that to the victims of violent crime and their families? How can we explain that to the small-business owners who need a contract dispute resolved in order to keep their store open and avoid bankruptcy? How can we explain that to the family that lost a loved one because of a drunk driver? We must be able to provide them with justice. In order to do this, we need the help of this General Assembly.”
The state ranks near the bottom in per-capita spending on courts. The Great Recession took $80 million out of the system.
Though Gov. Pat McCrory attended Martin’s speech, his proposed budget offered a relative pittance in additional court funding, about $6 million for things like interpreters and computer equipment and maintenance. Martin wanted $16 million, and given the previous cuts, that was modest.
The system cannot continue to struggle. Make no mistake: Inefficient courts, burdened by short staffing, increase the likelihood of mistakes, mistakes that could cost some people their freedom and give freedom to others who should not have it.
Lawmakers and the governor can’t expect the system to just roll along without adequate resources. And adequate funding delayed means bigger bills in the future.