Budget cuts leave justice hurtling towards a tipping point

Budget cuts leave justice hurtling towards a tipping point

How many bodies does it take to get a new date for a case on the Durham County court docket?

At least three.

And that’s no joke to court officials there.

“Our system is archaic right now,” said Chief District Court Judge Marcia Morey. “We still rely on paper shucks.”

That means, said Clerk of Superior Court Archie Smith, when a party wants a continuance, a clerk has to pull the shuck and bring it with others to a courtroom.  There, it’s handed to a District Attorney– if he has the authority to continue cases — or to the judge, who notes in writing on the shuck whether the case is continued. Someone then puts the shuck back in the box and brings it back to the clerk, who enters that information in the system and puts it back on a shelf.

All of which would take one person just minutes and a few computer keystrokes in the digital world.

“If we were a paperless system, it would cut a whole lot of manpower and time,” Morey said.

Most days, that time suck is the least of the problems in the Durham County courts. Some days there aren’t enough judges to keep court running. Often state investigators are testifying in one courtroom when they’re needed in another. And always there aren’t enough interpreters.

“It’s as simple as justice delayed, justice denied,” said Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson, commenting on the impact budget cuts have had on the courts there.

The emergency is now

Like the courts in Wake County and elsewhere across the state, those in Durham lack the judges and staff needed to meet even the minimum workload numbers identified by the National Center for State Courts.

The clerk’s office – without which Hudson said the courts could not function – is understaffed and its workers are overworked and underpaid, according to Smith. Many have had to take second jobs to make ends meet.

“We had to stop a court this week because two clerks were out and there was no clerk in the court,” Morey said.  “And we don’t even have the luxury of time to cross-train people to cover those spots.”

That’s true with the number of judges, too.

When a judge is out, there are no reserves, Morey said. At times, retired judges have come in and worked for free.

“We have a judge assigned to a court every day,” she said. “So, for example, I have a judge who’s going to Thailand – he’s taking his 15 days. He scheduled it for one week during his family court, and there’s no judge who can fill that.  So there will be no session of court for that week. The next week when he was to be in criminal court, we’re going to have to combine courts and have a judge double up on dockets.”

Cuts to other services just exacerbate the situation and add to the drag on court time, Morey added.  “It’s like when one of the wheels of a car comes off. The car is left just limping along.”

Hudson pointed to a shortage of state investigators as one example.  “You have to have the investigator in court to testify on a lab report, you have to have bodies – the people who did the test – in court,” he said.  “These people can’t be everywhere at the same time – and so in criminal court, in rape cases, drug cases, there are tremendous backlogs all over the state.”

Cuts in the number of interpreters are another example, Morey said.

According to Trial Court Administrator Kathy Shuart, Durham used to have four or five interpreters working 20 to 30 hours a week. Now the county has just one, who works full-time.

“And that’s for all of us — superior court, district court, family court, jail – it’s unbelievable,” Morey said. “We were told that we could call on the day we needed them – well, we always need them. And in the meantime courts are absolutely paralyzed until we can get the interpreter to come in.”

Robbing Peter to pay Paul

With state funding drying up, court officials have looked elsewhere for the dollars needed to salvage needed court time and services. That’s a step that John Smith, the director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, has called troubling and contrary to the state constitution.

“You shouldn’t have judges going cap in hand to county commissioners asking for money to operate courts,” Smith said in an interview earlier this month. “Not only does that create unequal systems across the state; it also shifts to counties and local governments a responsibility that the state clearly has under the constitution.”

In Durham, the city is paying to have an emergency judge sit in domestic violence court for four days a week, according to Morey.

“Domestic violence is one of our most important courts,” she said. “We’re criticized because we don’t have an elected judge who is sitting on that bench – we have two retired judges, one not even from Durham County. But we have no choice.”

And after the state cut funding for Durham’s three drug courts, the county stepped in to fund the adult drug court, she added.

But we’re running out of treatment money, and we’re relying on the services within the community to come in with no extra compensation to staff this drug court.  And we’re not even beginning to touch the number of people who need it.”

Morey also points out that the state is in some ways funding the courts on the backs of those who need their services most, through ever-increasing costs and fees.

“We say, ‘okay, you got $250 to do community service, you got $180 to pay for your court costs, you may have a fine, you have attorney’s fees of $55 an hour and a $6 dollar court appointment fee’ – add that all up on someone who’s unemployed, mentally ill, charged with a misdemeanor. ‘And if you don’t pay, you’re going to jail.’ What kind of system is that? I mean, of course it’s a revolving door.”

It’s a system that’s hurtling towards a tipping point, Smith added, “where access to the courts and the legal system becomes a luxury that people cannot afford.  And when that happens, people will take the law into their own hands.”

The more things change

Court officials in Durham are not optimistic that relief is in sight.

“North Carolina has historically given the courts short shrift,” Smith said, pointing to a 1964 Annual Report that showed the average number of judges in states of similar size at 70, while here that number was 40.

Hudson attributes that in part to the constitutional mandate that the legislature funds the courts.

“Things are going to get worse, because of who is in control in the legislature,” he said. “And I don’t mean Democrats or Republicans. What I’m talking about are non-lawyers making decisions that affect the legal system, when there should be more input from people who have experience – legal experience.”

That tension affects more than just the budget, Morey added.

“It’s a problem we get into every General Assembly session,” she said.  “It only takes one legislator with a constituent or a family member who’s had a bad time in court, and they take these personal stories and try to solve them through massive legislation.”

New rules regarding conditional discharges, for example – which require more back and forth between the judge and the AOC before an order can be granted – show just how such a scattershot approach affects the courts.

“Now we have to sign an order and send it over to the AOC, where they’ll look at the party’s criminal record,” she said.  “If they have no criminal record, AOC sends it back and we put the person on for another court date [to let him know that] he’s eligible for a conditional discharge if he does a certain number of requirements. So it’s another step in the process, and that’s hundreds of cases every week for a county the size of Durham. “

Hudson said that a real solution could come if legislators listened to those who spend their days working in the courts or, better yet, gave control of the purse strings to those folks.

“If the legislature’s going to fund, then give the money to the judicial officials to fund the programs that they think should have priority in their counties – not the ones that the legislature thinks should have priority,” he said.  “That’s not a radical idea.  Every year the Chief Justice says the same thing in the state of the judiciary address.”

Or perhaps, Morey added, if legislators gave the courts the deference they’re due.

“Court is every facet of a person’s life,” she said. “Getting the child custody papers, getting the dissolution of the marriage, child support – and we’re setting cases for April now. These are people’s lives. They’re impacted day to day, and they have to rely upon a court system that’s too full and has to kick the can down the road. That’s not access. That’s not justice.”

Image: nccourts.org