How to improve our courts

Editor’s note: N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin delivered remarks at his investiture on Monday. Here are excerpts:

Our Founders clearly understood the importance of our courts, and that is why they made the judiciary a separate and co-equal branch of government with a critical function to perform on behalf of the people. That function requires adequate resources, and my top goal as Chief Justice will be working to strengthen our courts through adequate funding and efficient administration.

As part of the 21st-century judiciary, court systems will need to stress innovation and efficiency without losing focus of the paramount objectives of any court system: fairness, impartiality, commitment to the Constitution, uniform application of law, administrative accountability, decisional independence and equal justice.

First, as part of my Administration of Justice Plan, we must apply innovation to strengthen our courts. To ensure that we innovate in a deliberate and logical way, we will establish a multidisciplinary study commission similar to the Bell Commission of the 1960s and the Medlin Commission of the 1990s. This panel will evaluate the operation of our court system and issue a report and recommendation.

There also are proposals that we can move forward with soon. For instance, we are committed to successfully implementing the Business Court Modernization Act, and there is no reason why we cannot be a national leader on this front. Additionally, I am committed to calendaring more appeals for full briefing and argument at the Supreme Court.

We also must incorporate the improved use of technology within the judicial branch, including electronic filing systems in all N.C. courts, thereby enhancing the efficiency and transparency of court operations.

Civics and the law

To fulfill our obligation to promote the fair and impartial administration of justice, we must also promote civics education and strengthen the rule of law. These related goals are critical to ensuring that the public understands the vital role of courts in promoting the rule of law and supporting our democracy. This discourse should start in our schools, as it is critical that young people understand the important role of courts and their status as a co-equal branch of government.

We will work to strengthen the rule of law by adopting best practices to ensure equal access to justice for everyone. We must promote a thorough understanding of the rule of law and its importance to the preservation of our constitutional rights and responsibilities.

Another important part of the plan is improving the justice system’s mental health resources for individuals and families. Our state has experienced success with “specialty” or “problem-solving” courts tailored to address specific issues, like Family Court or dependency and drug treatment. We also have two relatively new Veterans Courts that address issues specific to those who have served our country.

Rather than merely meting out punishment, these courts seek to rehabilitate offenders to lower recidivism rates and reduce public costs. I am committed to evaluating the establishment of Mental Health Courts that would empower individuals and families to proactively address mental health issues.

Needed: greater funding

None of the proposals that I have just described will be feasible without adequate funding. Each of these projects promises significant return on investment in the long-run. I look forward to working with legislative leaders to promote consensus on critical funding needs.

Funding shortfalls affect our citizens in very real ways. For instance, courts struggle to pay jury fees to those who are called for jury duty. In some cases, court sessions have been cancelled, even though the judge and parties were present and ready to proceed, because there was no court reporter or interpreter available. These delays result in inconvenience and increase costs to our citizens.

Another critical shortcoming is the severe delay in obtaining forensic evidence. Delays of a year or more for blood-alcohol analysis in DWI cases, or DNA testing in felony cases, have become the norm rather than the exception. These delays erode public confidence in our judicial system.

Greater judicial accountability

Finally, we must promote institutional transparency and accountability. We can improve judicial branch websites to facilitate better access to public record materials, and we will issue an improved, public, annual report on the judiciary.

We are embarking on a challenging set of goals to strengthen our justice system. Fully-functioning courts are vital to any healthy society. A government’s legitimacy depends on the impartial administration of justice, which requires adequate court staffing and funding. I will devote my term as your Chief Justice to ensuring that our judicial branch has the resources and the character to be worthy of the public’s trust.