Newly elected N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin on Wednesday asked the General Assembly to rescue the state’s financially struggling court system, saying decades of neglect have put its most basic functions at risk.
“We are now confronting a situation where the justice system is unable to promptly serve those who turn to us for help,” Martin said in a state of the judiciary address, given before a joint session of the legislature in the state House chamber.
Martin, who is a registered Republican, said the blame doesn’t fall on a single political party, but the resulting underfunding erodes the public’s confidence in the state’s ability to find justice.
Martin won election last year and took office as chief justice in January, although he has served on the state’s highest court for 16 years. Wednesday marked the first time since 2001 that a chief justice has been invited by the legislature to deliver remarks, and Martin used the moment for a high-profile push to secure more funding for the courts.
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Fellow justices, appeals court members and other judges, and Gov. Pat McCrory attended.
Martin’s 35-minute address was not delivered in loud, emphatic tones. Rather, he quietly recited numbers to illustrate what he painted as a tattered state of the courts, adding up to less money, fewer employees, outdated technology and a growing workload that reaches nearly 3 million cases each year.
He connected the lack of funding to its impact on people who find themselves in their local courthouse, frustrated by delays because there aren’t enough clerks, even as magistrates or sheriff’s deputies pitch in to help. There are 536 unfilled courts positions in the state’s 100 counties, he said. Yet the state constitution requires justice be administered without delay, he said.
“How can we explain that to the victims of violent crime and their families?” Martin said. “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.”
In 2007, North Carolina was ranked 49th among states in per capita spending on the judicial branch, and five years later had only moved up to 45th, he said. Over the past 25 years, appropriations for the judicial branch have never been more than 3 percent of the overall budget. Since the recession, the courts have sustained more than $80 million in cuts, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts.
Martin said the judicial branch has tried to cut costs, realign operations and make better use of technology. But positions have been left vacant to cover shortfalls in the budgets, and areas such as juror pay, court reporters and expert witness costs have gone underfunded, he said.
Martin’s address wasn’t just a litany of failure. He cited the success of specialty courts for veterans and domestic violence, and praised the comprehensive sentencing overhaul that directs more offenders to community treatment in hopes of keeping them from returning to prison.
This spring, he said, he will form a commission to evaluate the system and make recommendations for the legislature beginning in 2017. The chief justice said he has asked two colleagues on the Supreme Court to work with the state Board of Education and the state Department of Public Instruction to do more to teach students about the role of the judiciary. He said he is developing a plan to bring electronic case filings and virtual courtroom technology to all counties.
Martin didn’t ask lawmakers for a specific amount of money, although in February the Administrative Office of the Courts told the governor’s budget director it needs nearly $16 million additional funds each year.
“I think everyone in the legislature is aware of the challenges that the court system is facing,” Senate leader Phil Berger said afterward. “We talk to our local sheriffs, clerks, district attorneys and members of the bar. “I think the question is going to be, specifically, what is the proposal, where are the dollars going to come from, are the resources available; if not, can we find a way to get the resources where they need to be?”
Rep. Leo Daughtry, a Republican from Smithfield who is chairman of the justice and public safety budget committee and of a judiciary committee, said he hopes the funding will come through.
“I think he was clear about the fact that the judiciary has for many years been underfunded, and that we are at a point where we’ve got no choice but to do better than we’ve been doing,” he said.
House Democratic leader Larry Hall said the needs of the courts are the same needs across state government. Everyone has been looking for efficiencies, Hall said.
“But we as a state have grown, and those efficiencies are not enough to compensate for that growth,” he said. “We’re going to have to find ways to invest more in our future.”
Rep. Becky Carney, a Charlotte Democrat, said she liked what Martin had to say, especially calling for a long-term search for ways to turn the court system around.
“I thought he did a good job of laying out a vision for going forward, and of course the question always is, what will the price tag be?” she said.
Staff writer Lindsey Brunson contributed.