As the state’s legislative and executive branches engage in a new power struggle over which one should appoint judges to vacant court seats and whether the state should restore partisan judicial elections, a commission that did a 15-month review of the North Carolina court system has recommended taking steps to change how judges and justices are selected and retained.
The recommendation, which was not specific about what the changes should be, was one of many included in the N.C. Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice’s 371-page report this week to state Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin. He set up the 65-member commission in 2015 shortly after becoming the chief justice of North Carolina’s highest court.
“The commission’s recommendations create a framework for dramatic, systemic improvement in the administration of justice in North Carolina,” Martin said in a statement. “The work of this blue-ribbon commission will help ensure that North Carolina’s Judicial Branch meets the needs and expectations that the people of North Carolina have for fair, modern and impartial courts.”
Other key recommendations from the 15-month review include:
▪ To tie the number of any justices and judges on a given court to the workload of that court.
▪ Offering better assistance to the growing number of people who go to court without a lawyer for both civil and low-level criminal cases.
▪ Improving the state’s indigent defense system.
▪ Shifting 16- and 17-year-olds into the juvenile court system where criminal records are shielded from public scrutiny and the young offenders can be tethered to psychologists, alcohol and drug counselors, family, guardians and others invested in helping them turn their lives around. North Carolina is one of only two states that treat 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system.
▪ Restoring legal-aid funding and loan repayment assistance for public interest lawyers.
▪ Putting money into computers, technology and other network systems so the courts no longer process more than 31 million pieces of paper as they did in North Carolina in 2016, a volume that necessitated more than 4.3 miles of shelving.
One challenge that has evolved over the past two decades as urban areas have grown significantly and some rural areas have lost population is providing uniform court services and a uniform experience for people in different judicial districts. Because many residents live in one county and commute to jobs in neighboring ones, appearing in court for traffic violations and other matters can be time-consuming and expensive for all parties involved.
The report urges improving the reliability of case scheduling. “Efficient use of that time is more important than ever,” it states.
There are at least 100 county courthouses in North Carolina, and the social tapestry of the state’s diverse and disparate communities are on display inside them. When announcing the commission in the fall of 2015, Martin talked about some of the thread-worn and knotty spots that have been exposed over the years and his plans to bring together key stakeholders within the justice system, as well as representatives from the private and public sectors, to develop plans to repair some of them.
Martin likened the commission to one in the 1950s, whose study led to the creation of North Carolina’s district courts, and another in the 1990s that focused on the need for adequate funding to keep judicial independence.
The most recent review comes at a time when 53 percent of the public believes that outcomes in the courts are “fair only some of the time or not at all,” according to the commission’s report. “Sixty-three percent of the public believes that cases are handled in a timely fashion; and only 42 percent of the public believes the courts are sensitive to the needs of the average citizen.”
Such numbers, the commission members stated in the report, are “a call to action.”
By the numbers:
In 2016, North Carolina clerks offices processed more than 31 million pieces of paper that required more than 4.3 miles of shelving
Judicial branch employees: 6,000
Elected Supreme Court justices: 7
Elected Superior Court judges: 109
Elected district attorneys: 44
Elected clerks of Superior Court: 100
Elected Court of Appeals judges: 15
Elected District Court judges: 270
Chief public defenders appointed to four-year terms by senior resident superior court judges after nomination by the local bar: 16
Appointed magistrates: 675