October 2011 President's Column
The Numbers Are In and They Remain Dismal
By Robert C. Dortch, Jr.
Your Mecklenburg County Bar sponsored the first Lawyers Luncheon for the 2011-12 fiscal year on Thursday, September 1 at First Presbyterian Church. The luncheon was extremely well attended due in large part to the guest speakers: Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Richard Boner, Chief District Court Judge Lisa Bell and Trial Court Administrator Todd Nuccio. (The homemade chocolate chip cookies were also a big draw.) The message delivered by our respected panel members concerning North Carolina's Judicial Branch (purportedly a co-equal branch in our state government) was sobering at best and downright frightening in many regards.
According to Mr. Nuccio's research, the Judicial Branch (again a co-equal branch of government) received less than 3 percent of the overall state budget for fiscal year 2009-2010. The state's allocation of funds to the Judicial Branch has been reduced $28 million over the past three years. North Carolina ranks second to last nationally in the number of judges per capita. We rank 50th in the percentage of justice system funding spent on our courts - $67.00 a person (compared to Alaska which spends more than four times that amount per person).
Despite the exceptionally poor showing on the funding side of things, our courts remain extremely busy. (Again, these are Mr. Nuccio's numbers and any errors are due to my inability to read my notes or interpret his data.) Our fair state ranks number 10 for the number of incoming felony cases per 100,000 people for general jurisdiction courts. To make matters worse, Mecklenburg County receives a miserly eight percent of the woefully inadequate Judicial Branch budget based on state funding of full time equivalents. (Fortunately there was supplemental funding received from Mecklenburg County - approximately $6 million, and the City of Charlotte -- almost $300,000.)
We all know and appreciate that Charlotte Mecklenburg is a can-do, progressive place to live and work. An organized, efficient and technologically advanced judicial system plays an important part in who we are. And who we are is at risk. Other states that experienced drastic cuts in funding of their judicial branches of government have experienced drastic cuts in personnel and resources. Todd cited California as one example. A 30 percent reduction in funding for California's judicial branch over three years resulted in 40 percent of its employees being terminated, created five-year waits to get to trial, 18 months to get divorced, and 3-4 months for child custody evaluations. Other states are closing courts and reducing work weeks. North Carolina is not immune to those draconian measures.
The economy and the drastically reduced funding of the Judicial Branch have and will continue to impact litigants in our criminal courts. Judge Bell reminded us that the hourly rate paid to indigent defense attorneys has been reduced to $55.00. Some seasoned attorneys in that area of practice have already said that they cannot continue to represent their clients for such a reduced sum. That void is being filled, in part, by members of our Bar who have little, if any, experience in that arena but who understandably need to make a living in these tough economic times. The Bench and Bar are addressing those difficult issues of making sure attorneys are properly prepared to represent their indigent clients. Judge Boner went on to remind us of his comments last year that we may all find ourselves on appointed lists if things do not change for the better in the near future. (The Bench and the Bar better come up with a solution quickly.)
Mr. Nuccio asked why the local business community (which obviously includes our clients) should care about an underfunded Judicial Branch. He answered that question as follows: "The judicial system is the very foundation of a civilized society. The Court plays a critical role in determining the quality of life in a community. A healthy and vibrant community is essential to a flourishing business environment. The timely resolution of civil litigation minimizes uncertainties, reduces legal expenses, and allows the focus to be placed on the execution of the company's business plan."
The floor was opened for questions and comments. R. Lee Myers made an impassioned plea for us to get our elected officials in a room and impress upon them the need for additional funding for the Judicial Branch, the so-called co-equal branch of government. When Lee was finished, it was clear that the "jury" was willing to give him whatever he asked for -- we were behind him, name a figure. Judge Boner indicated that such attempts were made in the past but our representatives chose not to attend such a meeting.
We are in the midst of a difficult fight for funding North Carolina's court system. It is doubtful that many outside of the Judicial Branch and those associated with it understand and appreciate how serious and harmful it will be to continue cuts to the courts' budgets. I encourage you, your firms, families and friends to reach out to your representatives and zealously advocate for fair and equitable funding of North Carolina's Judicial Branch of government. If we just sit back and do nothing, then we will all end up on the appointed lists, the mere thought of which should frighten us into action.