Under the Dome

Polls: Courts efficient but not always fair

Judge Mark D. Martin, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of North Carolina, speaks with The News & Observer in Raleigh in this Sept. 28, 2015, file photo.
Judge Mark D. Martin, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of North Carolina, speaks with The News & Observer in Raleigh in this Sept. 28, 2015, file photo. cliddy@newsobserver.com

North Carolinians seem to think the state’s courts run efficiently but not necessarily fairly.

Those are the results of a recent pair of polls conducted as part of a mission by the state court system to take a good look at itself.

In March, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin delivered a state of the courts address to the General Assembly, something that hadn’t been done in 14 years.

He called for an immediate infusion of funding to bring the woefully outdated courts technology systems into the modern era. Martin said he would form a multi-disciplinary committee to make recommendations on improving the judicial system.

“Indeed, to further our accountability to this body and to the general public, this spring I will convene a multi-disciplinary commission to undertake a comprehensive evaluation of our justice system, and to make recommendations for how we can strengthen our courts within the existing administrative framework,” Martin said.

That commission has begun its work, and one of the steps it has taken was to commission a pair of polls from state universities experienced in that. Their results, recently made public, offer a measure of what people think about the courts, if they think about them at all.

Elon University and High Point University did separate surveys with different questions to come up with the overview.

“The public in North Carolina have high levels of confidence in the local police force and generally believe most people receive fair outcomes in our court system,” Elon University Poll director Kenneth Fernandez said in the poll report. “However, when asked specifically about how blacks, Hispanics, non-English speaking and low-income people are treated, most respondents acknowledge these groups frequently receive worse treatment by the courts.”

Over at High Point, poll director Martin Kifer said, “These findings show where perceptions of courts are positive but also where state courts could improve.”

Spending more money to improve them would not be a problem. Brian McDonald, assistant poll director at High Point, summarized this way: “North Carolinians overall say they know at least something about their courts and are not concerned about the state over-spending in this area.”

That’s welcome news for Martin, who did not receive nearly the amount of money he had asked for from the legislature “to right this ship.”

Here are some of the highlights of the polls:

▪ Those surveyed think that the wealthy and white people receive better treatment in the courts than blacks, Hispanics, low-income defendants and those without an attorney.

▪ Forty percent believe that people always or usually receive a fair outcome in court. But groups thought to receive somewhat worse or far worse treatment break down this way:

People without a lawyer: 76 percent

Low-income people: 64 percent

Non-English speakers: 53 percent

African-Americans: 46 percent

Hispanics: 46 percent

Middle class/working class: 4 percent

Wealthy: 2 percent

▪ Respondents think politics influence the courts: Only 17 percent agreed or strongly agreed that the courts are “free from political influence,” while 76 percent disagree to some extent. Political parties influence judge’s decisions, according to 76 percent; 75 percent think judge’s decisions are based on the fact that they have to face elections.

The Elon Poll says North Carolina had the second-highest level of judicial campaign spending in 2014, trailing only Michigan.

▪ Only 30 percent said they have ever served on a jury in North Carolina; 28 percent said they had been a plaintiff or a defendant; 24 percent said they had testified.

▪ Sixty-three percent said they agreed or strongly agreed that courts protect people’s rights.

▪ Sixty percent said judges make decisions based on facts.

▪ Large majorities, however, think cases are not resolved in a timely manner, and don’t think most people can afford to bring a case to court.

▪ Fifty-eight percent think the news media doesn’t portray the courts accurately.

The results of the polls will help the N.C. Commission on the Administration of Law & Justice come up with a report, which is to be completed and sent to the General Assembly in the 2017 long session. A committee is scheduled to discuss the results on Tuesday.

The polls were taken between Oct. 29 and Nov. 12. The High Point Poll surveyed 610 adults with landlines or cell phones, and has a margin of error of 4 percentage points. The Elon Poll surveyed 1,234 people and has a margin of error of 2.79 percentage points. Both poll results were adjusted for under- or over-representation by age, race, gender and phone use.

Staff writer Craig Jarvis

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Who’s not running?

Filing period opened last week for election to local and statewide offices. Here’s what we know about the General Assembly so far.

N.C. Senate incumbents

Tom Apodaca, seven-term Republican and Rules Committee chairman from Hendersonville – effectively the second-in-command to Senate leader Phil Berger

Bob Rucho, eight-term Republican and Finance Committee chairman from Mecklenburg County – architect of GOP tax changes

Stan Bingham, eight-term Republican from Davidson County

Buck Newton, three-term Republican from Wilson who’s running instead for attorney general

Josh Stein, four-term Democrat from Raleigh who’s running instead for attorney general

N.C. House incumbents

Paul “Skip” Stam, eight-term Republican and speaker pro tem from Apex

Leo Daughtry, 12-term Republican and Judiciary I Committee chairman from Smithfield

Roger West, eight-term Republican from Cherokee County

J.H. Langdon, six-term Republican from Johnston County

Rayne Brown, three-term Republican from Lexington

Jacqueline Shaffer, two-term Republican from Charlotte

Rick Catlin, two-term Republican from Wilmington

Paul Tine, two-term unaffiliated legislator and former Democrat from Kitty Hawk

Tricia Cotham, four-term Democrat from Mecklenburg County

Nathan Baskerville, two-term Democrat from Henderson

Ken Waddell, two-term Democrat from Columbus County

Chris Whitmire, two-term Republican from Transylvania County

Dan Bishop, one-term Republican from Charlotte who’s running instead for Rucho’s Senate seat

Track the races

See a full list of who’s running in statewide races and legislative contests at nando.com/dometracker