Money and Access President's Message December 2009 By Patrick E. Kelly
I recently received a call from Chief District Court Judge Lisa Bell asking if the Bar might assist in helping her acquire North Carolina statute books for her judges to use in court. The problem, according to Judge Bell, was inadequate state funding to purchase statute books. A call to Jim Smith, the Chair of the Litigation Section, soon produced four law firms, Sellers, Hinshaw, Ayers, Dortch & Lyons, P.A.; Mitchell & Culp, PLLC; and Caudle & Spears, P.A. with Robinson, Elliott & Smith, and one anonymous donor who generously volunteered to purchase the statute books.
In the scheme of things, the lack of state funds to purchase statute books for courtrooms is insignificant. However, it is symptomatic of a larger failure by our state and local leaders to devote sufficient public funds to our court system. Although I was heartened and grateful at the quick response of our Bar to Judge Bell's plea, I couldn't help feeling a bit embarrassed and eve ashamed by the fact that we had to seek private funds for this purpose. I am embarrassed that our state legislature has failed to adequately fund our court system. And I am embarrassed that I as an attorney and we as a Bar of more than 4,300 attorneys have not done more to ensure adequate funding for the court system. Here are a few statistics to consider:
· North Carolina ranks second to last in the number of judges per capita (1.3 per 100,000 population) · North Carolina ranks 50th in the percentage of funding spent on courts per person · North Carolina ranks first in the incoming number of criminal cases per 100,000 population.
· Mecklenburg County is home to approximately ten percent of all North Carolina citizens, but receives only seven percent* of the Judicial Branch budget. (*based on 2007-08 FTE positions);
· Mecklenburg County courts depend on an outmoded paper filing system that is more prone to delays, errors and lost information. There are more than 1 million paper files in the Clerk's Office and 200,000 new filings per year.
· Basic automation is lacking to track continuances, defendants' failure to appear and other information critical to efficiently scheduling and processing civil and criminal matters.
Although efforts have been made in recent years to improve funding in North Carolina for the court system, our courts remain woefully underfunded while case loads continue to increase dramatically. An independent and well funded judicial branch is at the heart of our constitutional system and ensures, as required by North Carolina Constitution Article 1, §18, that our courts are open and that all persons shall have remedies through the courts without undue delay.
As members of the legal profession and the Mecklenburg County Bar, we are obligated to promote the administration of justice and access to legal services to all, regardless of social or economic status. We all have a vested interest in a well funded and efficient court system, whether or not our individual practices require us to go to court. Thus, although MCB is generally prohibited as a state agency from supporting political or ideological causes, MCB is not precluded from advocating or lobbying with respect to matters related to the regulation of the legal profession, or to improve the quality of legal services to the public. The question that must be asked and answered is whether the MCB can and should do more to ensure that there are enough judges, prosecutors and public defenders, that Mecklenburg County Courts are provided with current technology to handle ever increasing caseloads, and that our judicial system is given the priority it deserves to ensure access to our courts, prompt resolution of claims for litigants and accused.
I would like to appoint a task force comprised of a cross section of our Bar to review what the MCB can do to support funding of our court system. If you have an interest in participating in this effort, please let me know.