This year marks the 50th anniversary of a unified court system in North Carolina and the creation of our state’s district courts. Although there have yet to be any documented sightings of celebratory flash mobs or spontaneous dancing in the streets, the agency created to manage the judiciary, the Administrative Office of the Courts, has pronounced a “celebration” of the occasion.
Before the implementation of a unified General Court of Justice, North Carolina had a hodgepodge of city and county courts in the 1960s. Some local judges were elected, others appointed by city or county officials. In some cities the mayor worked double duty as a judge as no law license was required. In many counties, judges’ salaries were determined by the fees they collected!
As a quiet change in North Carolina’s court system was taking place, the Vietnam War surged on, race riots erupted in cities across the country, Batman was unleashed, the Beach Boys sang and the Supreme Court recognized “Miranda rights” that gave citizens protection against self-incrimination.
In May 1964, “A Report on the Courts and Business of the 14th Judicial District” was published which documented the workings of the Durham court system. It highlighted the marked differences of how courts operated then and now.
Back then, Durham (population about 130,000) had what is known as a “Recorder’s Court” which operated on average two hours each day. 16,232 cases came before the three sitting judges that year; half of the cases were traffic offenses. Justices of the peace presided over minor matters and 259 divorce trials were scheduled for “twelve-man juries.” All proceedings were documented by hand in large leather-bound Recorder’s books.
Durham also had a juvenile court for children under the age of 16. About 200 youths faced truancy, delinquency and undisciplined charges for being out of their parents’ control. Two juvenile probation officers were assigned, one white and the other “negro,” each responsible for supervising cases reflecting his own race. A total of 17 youth were sent to a state Training School which is similar to a “prison for kids.”
Looking back to 1966, some aspects about the court system seem positive: Court costs were a bargain. Recorder’s Court costs were $11, compared to 2016’s criminal court costs of $180 and $290 for DWI cases. Filing for a divorce cost $19; today it’s $225. Fines typically ranged from $2 to $15. Court revenue stayed in the county, whereas today court costs go to North Carolina’s general fund.
That was then. After the reform in 1966, North Carolina’s district courts began operating in statewide uniform manner. The Administrative Office of the Courts was created and began to manage and promulgate rules for all courts. The judiciary’s budget was determined by the General Assembly, while counties remained responsible for building and maintaining courthouses.
Today in Durham, seven full-time district court judges preside in courts five days a week and all of them hold law degrees. Judges rotate in criminal, family, traffic, juvenile, child support, civil and domestic violence courts. Additionally, a “first appearance” court is held every morning at the jail for those who are unable to post the initial bond set by a magistrate upon their arrest.
Last year approximately 55,000 cases were filed in Durham’s district courts. 35,000 were criminal and traffic cases; 3,000 were family/domestic/child support; 12,500 civil and small claims and 400 were juvenile cases. Durham’s Superior Court had over 3,000 criminal and civil cases.
The work of the district court involves juggling 23 prosecutors, 23 public defenders, 71 assistant and deputy clerks of court, 18 criminal and civil magistrates and hundreds of private attorneys. The caseload is enormous and often exhausting.
For decades, Durham courts have been innovative and problem solving with the implementation of therapeutic drug treatment courts, family court, truancy court, community life court, misdemeanor diversion court and a teen court. With the support of Durham’s county and city government, a pretrial release program has been put in place, the county’s Criminal Justice Resource Center provides services to defendants and new efforts are underway to address and help those who appear in court with a mental illness or suffer from domestic violence.
No one ever wants to come to court, but Durham is striving to help individuals with problems they face. For those in custody disputes, we have a skilled mediator and offer parenting apart classes and a fatherhood initiative. Civil cases can be assigned to arbitration, and citizens who take out criminal complaints are provided services from the Dispute Resolution Center.
The overriding goal of the courts is to serve the public by resolving disputes as expeditiously and fairly as possible. We want people to have confidence and trust in their courts and often we offer tours for middle and high school students, educating them about the judiciary.
As we mark the 50th anniversary of the creation of the district court, challenges remain. North Carolina courts are at the bottom of funding, ranking 45th out of 50 states. Since the 2007 recession hundreds of court employees lost their jobs, vacant positions remain frozen, workloads increased and many court staff have sought out second or third part-time jobs to make ends meet. All state drug treatment court funding was eliminated and those accused of class 3 misdemeanors no longer have the right to a court-appointed attorney.
If the courts are to remain a viable third independent branch of government, proper funding from the General Assembly must be addressed. Last year Chief Justice Mark Martin spoke to the General Assembly reminding legislators that the entire court budget is less than one-third of the Wake County Public School system’s budget. He stated that: “Our operational budget is under tremendous stress … if we cannot pay for these basic services, we cannot conduct timely trials. The resulting delays erode the public trust and confidence in the integrity of justice.”
This anniversary of district courts may not be a celebration as much as a point in time to be reminded that the courts are the final arbiters of justice without undue delay and with fairness to all. Many changes have been implemented since 1966, but true justice for all will be a goal we fall short of without the resources to support this mission.
Marcia Morey is Durham County’s chief district court judge. Reach her in c/o firstname.lastname@example.org.