Funding cuts hobble North Carolina courts

No nation in history has been more strongly committed to the protection of individual rights than the United States, yet across the nation rendering justice is being undermined by an erosion of funding for the courts. The results are a growing backlog of cases, overwhelmed judges, rising court fees, a shortage of legal counsel for indigent people and longer jail stays for the accused.

Funding for the courts has long been a low priority for state governments, and the purse strings tightened further as states wrestled with budget shortfalls during the Great Recession and the slow recovery.

Now most states are restoring or increasing court funding, but North Carolina is allowing the crunch to grow more severe. The state’s population increase continues to add to the courts’ caseloads, but the state legislature continues to cut funding.

Durham’s Chief District Court Judge Marcia Morey is one of many judges and lawyers sounding an alarm about the legislature’s willingness to let justice proceed with less and less. “It’s a travesty,” she said.

Morey was speaking as a member of the Durham Crime Cabinet, an advocacy group of local government and justice-system officials as well as private citizens with interest in crime and its prevention. The group is offering a wish list for more judicial funding when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.

In a report from The News & Observer’s Jim Wise, Morey outlined the scale of the lost funding. The legislature cut $7.5 million in its last session and $80 million over the last six years. The court system’s $464 million budget is 2.2 percent of the state budget compared with past levels of about 3 percent. Among the states, North Carolina is third from the bottom in court funding as a percentage of the state budget.

Statewide, courts have lost more than 600 full-time positions, or 10 percent of their workforce. In Durham, that has meant fewer people to translate for Spanish-speaking defendants and the loss of a victims advocate. Other jobs are being left unfilled so there’s enough money for jurors’ fees.

Meanwhile, funding for public defenders has been cut and access to counsel limited. A new law effective last December ended the right of people charged with third-degree misdemeanors to court-appointed attorneys.

Morey’s concerns are shared throughout the system and at its highest levels. State Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin has made improving court funding a priority and plans to press lawmakers to increase the court system’s budget this session.

Catharine Arrowood, president of the North Carolina Bar Association, said her group will work with the chief justice in seeking more court funding. She will stress the growing demands of the system but also the savings that could be realized by investing now. One thing that makes the state’s court system slower and more expensive to run is the lack of electronic filing beyond the N.C. Business Court, she said. Investing in that technology through state allocations or a bond issue would save money in the long term.

Unfortunately, the Republican-led legislature has painted itself into a corner with tax cuts that reduced state revenue. Now the courts must clamor for money against other underfunded needs in education and health care.

However resistant the legislature’s Republicans may be to more court funding, the state’s judges and lawyers must press hard. If they lose in the General Assembly, they should take it to the court of public opinion. There will be a verdict in 2016.