March's 2011 President's Column
What to Do?
By A. Todd Brown
Each February, the looming CLE deadline puts a premium on meeting space at the Mecklenburg County Bar Center. A good problem to have for our CLE apparatus. So it was last month that the Mecklenburg County Bar's Board of Directors found itself without a meeting place. Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Richard D. Boner and Chief District Court Judge Lisa C. Bell quickly came to the rescue, however, securing space for us in our ultramodern courthouse facility, which delighted us.
But one particular aspect of the judges' state of the courthouse reports to the board regarding courthouse personnel has lingered with me. Judges Boner and Bell lamented the continued adverse impact to Mecklenburg County's judicial system as a result of the state's budget deficits, the latest projected at a whopping $3+ billion, but then added this new twist: In late January 2011 all Senior Resident Superior Court Judges, Chief District Court Judges, Clerks of Superior Court, and District Attorneys received notice to commence implementation of a Voluntary Reduction in Force Plan. After a careful and comprehensive examination of options, the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts was recommending immediate implementation of the plan in the field, in part because no assurances can be made about the availability of funding for the payment of severance packages to eligible employees who reject a voluntary separation option now but who are involuntarily separated later. Because our courts have long endured budget cuts, there was concern that this new plan could prove not only demoralizing but also potentially devastating to court personnel and operations alike.
Mecklenburg County's judicial district is the state's largest and most complex. Part of its mission is to provide fair and accessible justice to the community. A review of recent statistics for and affecting the Mecklenburg County court system demonstrates the need for more instead of less resources:
· North Carolina ranks second to last in the number of judges per capita (1.2 FTE per 100,000 population).
· North Carolina ranks 50th in the percentage of justice system funding spent on courts.
· North Carolina ranks fifth in the number of incoming criminal cases per 100,000 population.
· Mecklenburg County logs approximately 18% of the Violent Crime Index and approximately 14% of the Property Crime Index in the state (2009).
· Mecklenburg County is home to roughly 10% of all North Carolina citizens, but receives roughly 7.68%* of the Judicial Branch budget (*based on FY 2008-09 FTE positions).
· Mecklenburg County processes 9.9% of all filings and dispositions in the state (FY 2008-09).
Past MCB President Pat Kelly observed in 2009 that more than a million paper files exist in the Clerk of Court's Office and that there are roughly 200,000 new filings per year, yet our courts must rely on an outmoded paper filing system that is prone to delays, errors, and lost information.
With a projected budget deficit in the billions and corresponding reductions mandated for virtually every level of state government, it is a certainty that our local judicial system is not likely to experience material funding increases any time soon to address any of the issues above. One federal judge appropriately has remarked, the [federal] courts' workload and the resources provided to handle that workload are headed in opposite directions. Ditto for the Mecklenburg County state courts. This dismal state of affairs threatens the Mecklenburg County court system's commitment to working collaboratively with the community to prevent and solve problems to enhance the quality of life for all. So, for many, the immediate implementation of the Voluntary Reduction in Force Plan may well prove the last straw.
The consequences of constant budget cuts are at hand. Our judges and our public interest lawyers, who discharge constitutionally and statutorily mandated duties daily, can do more with less for only so long. Increasingly, court operations will begin to suffer. Will we start to lose our most experienced judges? Will funds to pay prosecutors, public defenders, or court-appointed counsel for indigent defendants become unavailable? Will funds to pay jurors in civil and criminal trials run low or run out, throwing into jeopardy the availability of trial by jury? Invariably, budget shortfalls will force court-support agencies to scale back operations as well. For example, will supervision decrease for offenders who could pose a risk to public safety? Only time will tell.
What to do? Let us commit, as ordinary North Carolinians in these extraordinary economic times, to assist Mecklenburg County courts and public interest attorneys in the pursuit of justice. Our country's history is replete with stories of ordinary Americans, at extraordinary times, who took strides to protect and defend our basic, inalienable rights. The rule of law is central to those rights. As practitioners in Mecklenburg County courts and as citizens who rely on the judicial system to uphold the rule of law, we have a responsibility to help secure fundamental rights. As members of a noble profession, we are obliged to ensure that our courts remain effective guardians of those rights.
As a state agency, the MCB is prohibited from supporting political or ideological causes. But its mission permits advocacy for matters related to the regulation of the legal profession. Indeed, the MCB mission statement compels it to serve the public and the Bar members in improving and preserving the administration of justice. And we all possess the constitutional right to petition for redress of grievances, including the dismal state of court funding. It falls to us, as ordinary citizens and as extraordinarily privileged lawyers, to help our elected leaders appreciate the need for greater resources for Mecklenburg County's judicial system. In addition, we are free to reach out to Judge Boner and Judge Bell, as well as District Attorney Andrew Murray, Public Defender Kevin Tully, and Clerk of Superior Court Martha Curran, to inquire if we might be of some assistance in this time of economic crisis and, if so, how.
Mecklenburg County's star continues to rise on so many different stages. The selection of Charlotte as host of the 2012 Democratic National Convention is sufficient evidence of that. Let us then, as lawyers with unique legal privileges, take the initiative to do something meaningful to bolster Mecklenburg County's courts and their constituent parts. To be sure, the effectiveness of Mecklenburg County's judicial system depends in large part on adequate funding to promote the administration of justice, to protect the rule of law. That system, also, ought to be able to count on the services of MCB members in times of need.
What to do? Rise up and speak out!