North Carolina Chief Justice Mark Martin holds the state’s highest judicial office, but since taking the post in September he has been acting more like a lawyer. His client is the North Carolina judicial system, and he’s spending a lot of time advocating on its behalf.
Martin tells anyone who will listen that the state’s judicial system is stymied by out-of-date technology, burdened by a growing caseload and starved by cuts in funding. In March, he made his case in a rare address by the chief justice to a House-Senate session of the General Assembly. He also announced plans for a commission to review the judiciary branch.
Last week, Martin named the co-chairs of the panel known as the North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice. They are state Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jackson, N.C. Bar Association President Catharine Arrowood, retired Magistrate Judge William Webb of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, Duke Law School Dean David Levi and Brad Wilson, president and CEO of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina.
Martin is also seeking participation from lawmakers, private sector leaders and people involved in the judicial system.
Whatever else the commission finds, it’s clear that its top conclusion will be the system needs more money. Like virtually everything else in state government, court funding was cut during the recession but has not been restored as the economy improves. Because most court expenses are in staff salaries, the lost revenue resulted in staff reductions. The judicial branch with about 6,000 employees is short about 500 positions. Over the past four years, spending cuts in the judicial branch have totaled $35 million based on the 2009-2010 fiscal year spending level, according to a N.C. Bar Association report.
But even before the recession, court funding was stingy. In 2007, North Carolina ranked 49th nationally in terms of per capita spending on the judicial branch. N.C. Bar President Arrowood noted in a column earlier this year that “North Carolina, with the ninth-largest population in the country, is now the third lowest in spending on its judicial system.”
The result has been trial delays and a lack of investment in technology that could speed the judicial process. Some court personnel have to work second jobs to make up for a lack of raises, and the courts themselves are struggling with such basics as paying court reporters and jurors.
Losing public trust
Martin told lawmakers, “If we cannot pay for these basic services, we cannot conduct timely trials. The resulting delays erode public trust and confidence in the integrity of the justice system, because they impair our ability to promptly apprehend offenders and see that they are tried and appropriately sentenced. We all know that ‘justice delayed is justice denied,’ and we are confronting a situation where the justice system is unable to promptly serve those who turn to us for help.”
The House’s proposed state budget starts to close the gap. It would add $6.3 million to the operating budget and $11.9 million for technology that could expand electronic filing. But the plan falls short of the $16 million in courts operating money that Martin asked for in his address to legislators. And the increases offered by the House are likely to be trimmed, perhaps considerably, in the Senate’s upcoming budget proposal.
The North Carolina court system needs changes. This new commission’s review, which is to be completed by the start of the 2017 legislative session, will find issues of funding, technology, process and access. But overall it will find an issue of justice increasingly delayed and denied. The test of justice is accessibility to courts that have the resources to hear and resolve cases promptly.
That’s why Chief Justice Martin is playing the lawyer. This is a case North Carolina can’t afford to lose.