Trial by jury, a cornerstone of the American justice system, has become a luxury North Carolina is struggling to afford.
At the current rate, the state court system says it will burn through the $3.6 million set aside to pay jurors by April 1.
To cover the last three months of the budget year ending June 30, the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts has ordered a 30-day hiring freeze and launched a statewide plan to lower the pay grade of all new employees.
John Smith, executive director of the AOC, broke the news to the state’s judges during their annual meeting in October. It’s the latest in a series of financial setbacks that courts officials say has threatened the quality of justice statewide.
In Mecklenburg County, court officials say everything from a shortage of court reporters and clerks to a technology gap that grows wider by the day have led to longer lines at the courthouse and longer waits for residents to get their cases before a judge.
“If the story of judicial funding were in the Bible, it would be in the Book of Lamentations,” says veteran Charlotte attorney John Wester. “The cuts have come one after the other. ... It harms real people. In the end, the courts could lose the confidence of the very public that counts on them for relief.”
• After the General Assembly cut its reimbursement in half (from $2.50 to $1.25 a page, the lowest in the country), two of Mecklenburg’s seven court reporters have left, citing the cut in reimbursement as a reason.
Court reporters, who are salaried state employees, are used in all civil and criminal trials in Superior Court. They receive additional income from preparing court transcripts, and the cut in reimbursement has cost them more than $5,000 a year.
Todd Nuccio, Mecklenburg’s trial court administrator, says that having fewer reporters has forced him to delay Superior Court trials on at least three occasions. In other cases, he says he has given the parties a choice: Hire your own reporter, or we’ll cancel or reschedule your case.
“That’s an unfortunate way of handling the courts,” Nuccio says. “If you have money, you get justice.”
• North Carolina already lags behind many of its peers in electronic filing and other technology advances that would make it easier for judges, lawyers and the public to navigate the judicial system and for all interested parties to know what’s going on.
Over the past five years, the courts have lost 25 percent of their technology staff to budget cuts, and court administrators say they’ve never gotten the necessary money to put electronic filing and other improvements in place. Thus, clerk of court offices across North Carolina suffer from paper bloat.
Mecklenburg County Bar president Carla Archie says the lack of an electronic filing system places an added burden on judges and attorneys – and, by extension, the public.
As a senior attorney for Wells Fargo, Archie says she has regular experience in out-of-state courts with electronic filing systems. To follow motions or otherwise stay up-to-date with a case is “very burdensome and much more difficult in North Carolina,” says Archie, who was elected to the Superior Court bench in November.
• As with many parts of state government, court jobs are being cut. Over the past five years, the state courts have lost 10 percent of their workers – 29 jobs in Mecklenburg County alone.
The end result: Court officials say the pace of justice has slowed statewide despite a steady drop in both civil and criminal cases.
In North Carolina, the median age of a civil case in Superior Court has grown by 20 days, or 14 percent, since 2010. More strikingly, the percentage of civil cases 2 years old or older has almost tripled. In criminal court, it has doubled.
The longer waits in civil court can be crippling for businesses that often must resolve legal issues before starting new initiatives, says Greg Hurley, a senior knowledge management analyst for the National Center of State Courts.
He says many state court systems have not recovered from the recession, when governments were forced by falling tax receipts to make massive cuts.
“The problem with the judiciary is it doesn’t own anything. It’s not like the highway department, which can take an extra year to fix a bridge to save money,” he says. “All the money goes directly into staff and salaries.”
State Rep. Leo Daughtry of Smithfield, a Republican who is an attorney and longtime advocate for the courts in the North Carolina legislature, said the needs of the courts have grown under years of inadequate budgets.
“Our software is something from the 1970s. We’re still all paper,” said Daughtry, co-chairman of the legislature’s Joint Oversight Committee for Justice and Public Safety. “Our courts have been conservative on what they’ve asked for. But if you get down to basics, the judicial branch has not been treated well.”
‘Nothing really changes’
North Carolina operates what is known as a “unified,” or centralized court system, which is run by the Administrative Office of the Courts. While Mecklenburg taxpayers largely built the new county courthouse, the state pays for virtually all the cost of courthouse personnel and operations, everything from the prosecutors to the public defenders, court reporters and judges. (Mecklenburg County appropriates about $3.9 million each year to pay for 69 court positions. Most of the money goes to the district attorney’s office, public defenders and to Nuccio’s operation each year.)
Almost 55 percent of the legal system’s budget comes from fees and other money collected by the courts; the rest comes from the legislature. In 2013, the General Assembly added or altered a number of fees – including the creation of a $20 charge for every motion filed in a civil case.
Court officials say their budgets have been stretched tighter in recent years. According to Nuccio, the statewide problem with juror costs stems from AOC efforts to bolster the budget of Family Court, which handles custody and other disputes in Mecklenburg and other larger counties.
Ironically, the shortfall was announced not long before voters approved a constitutional amendment giving defendants in more serious cases the choice to have a judge decide their cases, potentially cutting the number of jury trials.
In its last budget year, which ended in June, Mecklenburg held almost 270 jury trials in criminal cases, more than 13 percent of the state total. Mecklenburg juries heard 47 civil cases, 16 percent of the statewide total.
The county calls up to 50,000 jurors a year. They are paid $12 for the first day, $20 for the second through the fifth days, and $40 a day from that point on.
Most trials last two to three days, but murder trials and complex civil litigation can stretch on for weeks. The capital murder trial of Demarcus Ivey started Sept. 17 with jury selection. On Dec. 2, it ended with a hung jury. In between, the case ran up almost $25,000 in jury costs – with a retrial still to come.
Nuccio says the dwindling juror money provides another indication of the courts’ stretched finances. This month, the longtime court administrator gave his annual state of the courts presentation to the Mecklenburg legislative delegation. He said he thinks the local lawmakers understand.
“They recognize that there is a problem and that they need to do something about it,” Nuccio says. “But I’ve been doing this for over 20 years. Nothing really changes. We’ve never had the resources to provide our citizens with the proper access to justice that they deserve.”
‘A priority for us’
Daughtry, who also chairs the House Judiciary Committee, says the legal system’s standing in the legislature has been hurt by controversial rulings in both state and federal court – from redistricting to same-sex marriage.
“People want the courts to rule a certain way, and I think the courts having to say ‘no’ on occasion doesn’t make them popular,” he said. “The best thing we can do is explain to the members of the General Assembly that this is the most important of the three branches of government.
“We need to step up and find a way to increase the funding not only for jurors but for every segment of the court system.”
Mecklenburg’s state senators, Bob Rucho and Jeff Tarte, said Wednesday they had not heard about the pending shortage of juror money.
“Obviously that’s not an option,” said Tarte, a Republican. But he added that agencies across state government are pushing the General Assembly for money it doesn’t have or is spending elsewhere. “We operate like a United Way,” he said. “Everybody makes requests.”
Rucho says all state spending depends on the ability of the Republican-led state government to reform and control some $2 billion in Medicaid costs in a $21 billion state budget.
“The courts are a priority to us,” the Matthews Republican said. “When we get our financial house in order, these are the areas that the state should be taking responsibility for first.”
Yet Richard Boner, the presiding superior court judge in Mecklenburg County, said talk of better days ahead is the latest verse in “the same old song.” He says the budgets have gotten so bad in the past that lawyers have donated copy paper. The annual clerk of court barbecue was started to supplement that office’s budget.
“It’s the equivalent of a bake sale,” says Boner, who is retiring next month after 27 years on the bench. “The courts in North Carolina have never, and I underline ‘never,’ been completely funded, and it’s only gotten worse in the last 10 years.
“The courts are being starved.” Researcher Maria David contributed.