Budget cuts, recession batter NC courts, threaten justice

By: - January 16, 2013 5:56 am

Most people don’t think about what it costs to run the courts, or appreciate just how deep the slashes to the judicial budget have been over the past few years, until they find themselves roaming the halls of justice waiting to be heard.

Standing on line out the door for hours to appear in traffic court.  Waiting years for a divorce to be finalized, or for a jury to hear your case.  And worse yet — getting only minutes to persuade a judge to grant custody of a child,  or waiting hours after an arrest until a magistrate is available to process charges.

That’s the reality in courthouses here in North Carolina and across the country. The recession has forced states to drastically cut court funding to the point where, as said in the award-winning video below, “the wheels of justice are about to come off.”  

Called “Courting Disaster,” the video provides a glimpse into the struggles within Los Angeles Superior Court of doing more with a whole lot less while trying to serve those with the most pressing needs.

Yes, it’s Los Angeles, with the largest judicial system in the country and cuts that are greater.  But it’s all an order of magnitude.  Here, the problems and the impact are the same.

Last week, our state court system released its annual report, and the discussion there on the impact of the recession is eye-opening: close to $80 million in budget cuts over four years; 638 full-time employees cut through vacancy management and actual losses, including magistrates and district attorney support staff; the elimination of state funding for drug courts and dispute settlement programs.

And technology throughout the system took a beating.

Cuts were inevitable, given the depth of the recession. But some were a matter of priorities. Business court, for example, survived; drug court did not.

Over the next few weeks Policy Watch will take a closer look at the impact cuts have had on the courts and the people they serve. We’ll be talking to judges, trial court administrators, and clerks as well as people roaming the halls and waiting on line for their day in court.

We start here with our interview (excerpted below) of Hon. John W. Smith, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, whose job it is to try and keep the courts up and running. A former Special Superior Court Judge, Smith was appointed AOC director by Chief Justice Sarah Parker in December, 2008.

NCPW: Broadly speaking, how has the recession affected the courts?

Smith: Well like so many things in our society right now, it’s had an impact that’s affected different parts in different ways. Some we can say survived, knowing that we’ve met a challenge at a cost. But on other segments it’s had a fairly devastating effect. For example, they eliminated drug court entirely. That was a program that had been expanding; it had not been made statewide – that probably had a lot to do with the General Assembly choosing that.

Other than that program, the cuts have been generally proportional. We’ve handled most of it through vacancy management, with the hope that as the economy improves some of those positions will be restored.

We’ve lost some 600 positions – roughly ten percent of our workforce. Anytime you lose ten percent of your workforce and have no reduction in duties, you’re clearly doing more with less, but that’s been a longstanding tradition for the courts. We have been roughly 700 to 800 positions short using workload formulas that were developed in consultation with the National Center for State Courts.

NCPW: Appropriations for the courts are roughly 2.2 percent of the overall state budget – a low number even without the recession. How did you find places to cut given that?

Smith: When you’re accustomed to working with offices that are severely understaffed, you try to protect those. And the ones that are not as severely understaffed suffer larger cuts. And because our margin is so thin, 92 percent of our entire budget is for people, when you face that kind of cut the stress level is increased; in fact I would place it at the highest level I’ve seen in the more than 30 years I’ve been in the court system. Employees know that this is a challenge shared by others in the community, and they are stepping up to absorb that stress. The question arises as to how much longer they can continue to do that. If we continue to have to labor with the reduced workforce, with no reduction in duties, I suspect the public’s expectations may not be met in some areas.

NCPW: Are there counties that have been hit the hardest?

Smith: You can’t make a generalization like that because the workload formula depends on the job duty. And a county that may be low in the number of clerks may be just fine with the number of assistant DAs or the number of victim witness legal assistants. And I don’t think you can find a county that is consistently low in all areas

NCPW: When did the cuts begin?

Smith: In Jan. 2009, when I waked in the door. It was clear then that we were going to have to start planning for some significant cuts. So we began holding vacancies in offices that were well-staffed – and that’s a very relative term. We reduced travel reimbursement by half. The chief justice had all the judges that were normally rotating return to their home district for one cycle, which cut travel some.

We did a voluntary reduction in force. And we had some actual positions cut. I remember some 38 to 40 of the victim witness legal assistant positions being eliminated without much notice.

Here, at the AOC, we eliminated about 20 positions to avoid further cuts in the field.

And magistrates – that’s been a serious issue, and we’ve fought those cuts, because there’s no provision for a substitute magistrate. We have about 40 counties that only have 3 magistrates now.

NCPW: What’s the real world impact of the cuts in the number of magistrates?

Smith: You need five magistrates to operate a 24/7 cycle. And the public expects to have access to a magistrate 24/7. You can make do with four by very carefully scheduling their down time. But when you’re down to 3 magistrates, you have to have an on-call arrangement. So what that means to a local enforcement agency, for example, if an officer arrests somebody, they’re tied up for a longer period of time waiting for the case to get processed if the magistrate is not there. That’s the practical impact.

NCPW: Have there been other impacts, on case dispositions for example?

Smith: Overall we are not showing a generation of a backlog. I think that’s attributable to number of things. The public servants are responsibly dealing with the challenge. There may come a point where they cannot find a solution, but I am just amazed at the degree to which the judges, clerks and magistrates can find imaginative ways to try to be efficient.

And filings are down significantly – that’s been a saving grace.

So I don’t see a backlog building yet, but one can build very quickly, especially in the district court criminal area. If all of a sudden a court can only dispose of half their docket, then it increases by 50 percent the next time. And all of a sudden it compounds.

Right now what I’m hearing that everybody is overworked, and they’re in court sometimes into the night time. I know one district set up a night court.

NCPW: Has there been an impact in family court, similar to that seen in the video about the Los Angeles courts?

Smith: The perception has always been within the juvenile courts that the numbers were greater than the number of people needed to dispose of cases effectively; that you had to make compromises and push dockets just like they do in California. And I’m certain that that is still occurring. If you go to some district courts, especially the administrative traffic courts, you’ll see lines out the door and down the street. I remember dockets in Wilmington at administrative traffic court with 900 cases in a day. That’s not a new thing; that’s something that our courts have been dealing with over time. So I wouldn’t attribute that directly to the recession, although the recession has certainly exacerbated it.

NCPW: What are you seeing in terms of how people are being served?

Smith: The domestic violence, the custody cases – we tend to give them a lot of attention, because the need is great and the consequences of failure are so severe. But there are other areas that are lagging. Victims of crime expect those cases to be tried efficiently, and if you talk to any district attorney they’ll tell you that they do not have the staff to handle the number of cases they have.

And victim witness legal assistants, their positions were created because there was a desire at the time to make sure that victims were looked after and informed, and would have somebody to go to. Well the legislature reduced their numbers by somewhere in neighborhood of a half. So when you do that not only does the reality of the ability to provide the service get compromised, but the perception does too. And there’s already a perception that the courts are not always responsive.

One of the flashy issues now is business – business and jobs. Well, one of the arguments that prevailed in the General Assembly was the contribution that the business courts make. It would have been in jeopardy, except that you could take advantage of the issue of the day, which was jobs, and show how the courts were so critical to business and getting out of the recession. That saved the business court; it didn’t save the drug courts.

NCPW: What are you asking the General Assembly for the 2013 – 2015 biennium.

Smith: 800 positions [to meet workload needs], a restoration of the pay freeze and the ability to give raises to those people who stuck out the recession. And the magistrate situation has become critical. We’ve asked for 28 magistrate positions to be restored.

NCPW: Mecklenburg County was able to save its drug court through county funding. Is that an option elsewhere?

Smith: We’re a unified, uniform court system, and the constitution is very clear that the courts are to be state-funded. You shouldn’t have judges going cap in hand to county commissioners asking for money to operate courts. There are multiple problems doing that. To my mind it runs contrary to the constitution, it creates unequal systems across the state, and it shifts to counties and local governments a responsibility that the state clearly has under the constitution.


(If you have a story to tell about your experience in the courts or information to share about the impact of budget cuts on the courts, feel free to contact us at [email protected] ).

(Courthouse photo: Ava Barlow.  Video: “Courting Disaster” from “SoCal Connected” – KCET TV)

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Sharon McCloskey

Sharon McCloskey, former Courts, Law and Democracy Reporter for N.C. Policy Watch, writes about the courts and decisions that impact North Carolina residents. McCloskey also wrote for Lawyers Weekly and practiced law for more than 20 years. Follow her online at sharonmccloskey.com or @sharonmccloskey.