North Carolina’s unequal branch of government

The following editorial appeared in the Charlotte Observer:

North Carolina’s legislators are likely to be reminded on Wednesday why they haven’t invited the chief justice to deliver State of the Judiciary remarks for the past 14 years: He always seems so grumpy.

Biennially for a decade, the General Assembly would ask the chief justice to present to the House and Senate an update on the judicial branch. Chief Justice Burley Mitchell warned legislators throughout the 1990s that the state’s court system was financially neglected. His successor, I. Beverly Lake Jr., brought an even more adamant message in 2001. In 2003 and every year since then, no invitation came.

On Wednesdaynew Chief Justice Mark Martin will revive the tradition. And if he’s honest, he will revive the message: North Carolina’s judicial branch operates on a shoestring, and justice is at stake.

The judicial branch may be one of three equal branches of government in civics class. In North Carolina’s reality, there’s nothing equal about the funding. The court system receives $464 million from the state – just 2.2 percent of the general fund budget. More than half of that comes from revenue the courts themselves collect in fees and give to the state.

For years, North Carolina has been at or near the bottom nationwide for per capita spending on the judicial system, and the gap is large. North Carolina has 1.2 judges per 100,000 residents; the median for our type of court system is 6.8 per 100,000.

The numbers are moving in the wrong direction. The judicial branch’s overall budget is actually less than it was in the grip of the downturn five years ago, and court officials say the operating portion of the budget has dropped 41 percent since 2008. Nearly 600 positions have been cut since the recession.

Meanwhile, the population and the caseloads grow. In district court, 270 judges dispose of 2.6 million cases a year; 112 superior court judges dispose of more than 300,000 cases a year. Over the past five years, the average time to resolve cases has grown significantly – 30 percent to 60 percent in most kinds of cases.

Martin campaigned on strengthening the court system, so he’ll surely lay all this out for legislators. Besides more funding, one of his highest priorities is replacing paper filing with electronic filing of court documents. Technology funding was cut by 40 percent from 2011 to 2014, stalling e-filing pilot programs. Martin would install e-filing throughout civil superior court and business court as an initial phase.

All of this is more than just internal scrambling for a bigger piece of the budget pie. Skeletal funding delays the resolution of real people’s real cases, including things like child support.

We doubt that the courts are in for any kind of financial windfall. But the fact that the legislature invited the chief justice for the first time in 14 years is, perhaps, a welcome sign that lawmakers are open to at least slowly turning things around.

Tribune Content Agency

By the numbers

2.2 The percentage of the N.C. general fund budget that goes to the judicial branch

1.2 The number of judges North Carolina has per 100,000 residents

6.8 The median number of judges in states with our type of court system