Regarding the March 5 news article “State chief justice asks for more money for courts”: We were encouraged to see the General Assembly show enough interest in the state of our court system to invite Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin to deliver remarks. We were also pleased to see the chief justice eloquently point out what any intellectually honest court watcher knows: The system is embarrassingly underfunded and technologically antiquated.
However, we were disappointed to see Martin ignore a group of stakeholders who suffer as much if not more than any other as a result of the underfunding: the indigent accused, the wrongly convicted and the public defenders and appointed lawyers who represent them.
Having fought for the interests of those groups in North Carolina for six decades combined, we were dismayed to see them deliberately shut out of the list of stakeholders invited to attend and be recognized by Martin at the beginning of his speech. There, we saw representatives of multiple law enforcement groups, magistrates, clerks of court, court reporters, prosecutors, district court judges, superior court judges, the State Bar and the Bar Association. But there was not a single public defender or representative of North Carolina Indigent Defense Services.
We heard from Martin about clerks who must work second and third jobs to make ends meet, but we heard nothing about public defenders who, with heavy caseloads, must do the same. And we heard nothing about the only officers of the court who routinely go weeks or months at the end of every fiscal year with no paycheck at all for their work: court-appointed lawyers. This is after they’ve already seen their compensation fall so dramatically over the last few years that they simply cannot meet the bare minimum overhead necessary for a small business to survive.
We know that the poor, the accused and the lawyers who sacrifice to represent them won’t ever be an effective rallying cry for public funding. And we won’t pretend to know all the political considerations that go into the drafting and delivery of a speech such as Martin’s. But there comes a time when leadership demands subordinating political considerations to do what’s right.
When the legislature – and, let’s be honest, the public – sees the highest judicial officer of this state make a plea for court funding that recognizes every negatively impacted group except the indigent accused and their public service lawyers, we know where we stand. And it’s a shame.
Bradley J. Bannon
Joseph B. Cheshire V
The length limit was waived to permit a fuller response.