Trial judges gain new, valuable resources in Judicial Fellowship program

By: - July 13, 2017 1:32 pm
Illustration by Nelle Dunlap

For the first time in a long time, trial judges in North Carolina have independent research assistance for complicated cases and questions of law.

The Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) launched the N.C. Judicial Fellowship program in April after a recommendation from the N.C. Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice (NCCALJ).

The Fellowship is currently staffed by a director and four fellows, with four more to be added in August. Fellows provide independent legal research and writing support to the state’s 370-plus superior and district court judges.

“There’s been a desire to have that resource for trial judges for a long time, it’s just been kind of a budget [issue],” said Director Andrew Brown.

The state’s trial judges handle about two-million cases per year — the new fellows can help with research, writing, editing, proofing and making sure case law that is cities is current.

“There’s not a whole lot of time for judges to go back and research a weird legal issue that comes up, or a novel argument an attorney makes,” Brown said.

Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Joe Crosswhite has already used the Fellowship in three different cases this year: one case that involved the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission and two exceptional cases, also known as “2.1 cases.”

“In all cases, it’s been really helpful,” said Crosswhite, who presides in Judicial District 22A, serving Alexander and Iredell counties.

He said that he plans to use fellows from now on for any 2.1 cases he is assigned to and noted that this is the first time since he took the bench in 2008 that such an independent resource has been available.

Crosswhite described the trial courts’ caseload as volume-driven and said judges have to make decisions in haste, often relying only on the lawyers arguing before them for information and case law pertaining to the issues.

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He said he believes the Fellowship will ultimately increase the accuracy of trial court rulings, which in the long term could result in a reduced Court of Appeals caseload.

The Fellowship is modeled after a clerkship at the federal level, Brown said. Fellows will serve two year terms that are staggered to help with transition and predictability.

AOC spokeswoman Sharon Gladwell said fellow positions are full-time with an annual pay between $48,000 and $49,000 per year.

She said the Fellowship is the first of the NCCALJ’s recommendations to be fully implemented.

The Civil Justice Committee wrote the following in its final report:

“At the trial level, only the Business Court uses dedicated staff trained to assist the judges in investigating the law and making legal rulings. Although they may confront complex evidentiary or constitutional issues, superior court judges and district court judges have little to no research support. This lack of legally trained support staff takes place in an environment where significant numbers of law graduates are searching for full- time jobs, suggesting a potential opportunity for matching supply with demand.”

Later in the report, the Committee recommended using anticipated savings from the transition to technology to “reassign, retrain, or reinvest in judicial system support staff, including trial court administrators, clerks of court, and pools of research support personnel, so that a more precise, accurate, and efficient disposition can occur in every case.”

Jada Akers is one of the fellows who started in April. She graduated from the North Carolina Central University School of Law in 2015 and worked for a few months as a defense attorney in Pitt County and then for a little over a year in the prosecutor’s office there.

“What drew me to this position was the fact that I thought it was an invaluable experience,” she said, adding that the exposure to different types of law has been a positive. “For me, it really was about becoming a more well-rounded lawyer, being able to hone my research and writing skills and utilize that once I leave this position as well.”

Akers said the fellows have already gotten a lot of questions this year.

The fellows work out of the AOC office in Raleigh but can travel depending on each judge’s needs. On any given day, a fellow could be working in the field as opposed to an office; they could be attending court hearings or meeting with a judge to go over the details of a case in-person.

“I know one of the things that was repeated during the interview was ‘you’re going to get five years of legal experience in your two years,’ and I can already tell that is definitely going to happen,” Akers said.

Brown said the Fellowship is a unique opportunity for the fellows because they get to work with judges all across the state. Attorneys who are fellows see it as an opportunity to help the judicial system and a chance to better advocate as attorneys when they go back out into the practicing world, he added.

How long a fellow is assigned to a judge is totally dependent on the type of question they are presented with, Brown said.

“There are some questions that are very quick, hot takes; there’s some things that are much more long term,” he said. “Sometimes questions come in and they say, ‘I don’t have this issue in front of me right now but it’s come up several times, it’s kind of like a trend, can you do some research for me just more generally so I’m more familiar with it when it comes up again?’”

Brown said they are building the Fellowship from the ground up and trying to get the most “bang for the buck.”

The reception to the program from judges has been very positive, he added.

“Most people are really glad the Commission recognized this as a need,” he said. “This is something [judges have] really needed for a long time.”

Akers said her favorite part of the Fellowship thus far has been learning about new areas of law.

“It’s really kind of a cool task to go from not really knowing that much about civil law to being able to answer questions for judges about civil law,” she said. “I think it’s a great skill to develop, to be able to engage in areas and expand my horizons as well.”

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Melissa Boughton

Melissa Boughton worked as the Courts and Law Reporter at NC Policy Watch from 2016 to 2020.