State court system: Unified in name only?

State court system: Unified in name only?


Someone forgot to remind legislators hell-bent on slashing judicial budgets in recent years that a unified court system does not call for one-size-fits-all funding.

Rural districts have different concerns than those in the cities, especially those that span across counties. There are more miles to cover and more courthouses to keep open.

And the effects of cuts to one segment of the system are not contained; rather, they ripple out in unanticipated ways. Cuts in the number of magistrates, for example, do more than slow down the processing of suspects under arrest; they create public safety issues district-wide.

Perhaps legislators just misunderstood how the many moving parts of local judicial systems work together and underestimated the impact that cuts in one area can have on another.

“It’s important for people who are looking at budget and policy to listen to the folks who are on the ground,” said Joe Buckner, Chief District Court Judge in Chatham and Orange counties. “It’s important to understand that we’ve got 100 counties that need effective court systems for public safety purposes, for victim’s rights and for defendant rights.”

Or perhaps legislators just haven’t been listening to pleas for more tailored and responsible cuts.

Either way, what has resulted from across-the-board cuts is not only a court system on the brink of dysfunction but also one that is quickly becoming unified in name only.

“The justice system has a lot of different stakeholders, and we’re all responsible,” said Sam Cooper, Clerk of the Superior Court in Chatham County. “We try to go forward with a unified and single voice, and I think reasonably so we’ve all worked together. But there’s going to be a point when we all turn on each other.”

“There’s no cavalry around”

Judicial District 15B, which stretches across Chatham and Orange counties, has been hardest hit by the loss of four magistrate positions, Buckner said.

Orange County dropped from nine to seven magistrates who sit in Hillsborough and Chapel Hill – though Chapel Hill is open only from Thursday through Saturday now.

And Chatham County went from six magistrates to four. Those magistrates used to sit in both Pittsboro and Siler City, but cuts forced the closure of the Siler City location.

That’s presented logistical as well as public safety problems in both counties in the district.

If officers make an arrest in Siler City, near the western border of Chatham County, they have to drive 17 miles to get to the magistrate in Pittsboro, Buckner said.  That leaves the Siler City police department with just a skeleton crew to handle any incidents that might arise in the meantime and endangers the entire county.

“If there’s another public safety issue while those officers are in Pittsboro, there’s no cavalry around,” Buckner said.

At least in Orange County, “there’s a lot of help in the neighborhood,” he added, noting that police in nearby Carrboro as well as those from the university, the hospital and the sheriff’s department could respond to calls while Chapel Hill officers take a suspect to the magistrate in Hillsborough.

“The small rural police departments who are the least capable to respond to multiple emergencies, have been impacted the most,” Buckner said.

Cuts to the magistrate ranks have also led to delays in processing those arrested – sometimes hours long.

A county needs at least four magistrates to cover that position 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Buckner said. At one point, he added, one of the county’s magistrates was out due to a problem maternity and another with a concussion.

“The only way to solve that was to send Orange County magistrates to Pittsboro. And that shorted me in Orange,” he said. At one point the captain of the Chapel Hill patrol called him to say that officers had to wait for five hours with a suspect in a sally port before seeing a magistrate.

“You really don’t want them standing there for five hours — for safety reasons,” Buckner said. “But also, if that officer is standing there for five hours, he’s not doing anything else.  You know, law enforcement is a very finite resource.”

Buckner pointed out that normally it takes about 25 minutes to process a routine DWI – just to get through the paperwork. But one problem arrest slows things down, and if you’ve gone from four to three magistrates, the line just gets longer.

And that’s just for DWI suspects, he added; that doesn’t include those in line who’ve been arrested for family violence, murder, rape or breaking and entering.

“I’ve heard that magistrates try to get the most dangerous people out of the queue, but there’s different law enforcement agencies bringing people in and so it’s sort of hard to make that assessment when they’re in the line,” Buckner said.

Making deals on the criminal side

Cuts to the support staff in the district attorney’s office have likewise created a public safety issue in District 15B.

Chatham County has one assistant district attorney assigned to district court right now, according to Buckner.

“If he doesn’t have anybody helping him, he’s saying ‘I need 15 minutes judge,’” Buckner said. “And there are 400 people in there – it just builds on itself.”

Districts need to be using the police in a courtroom in an appropriate manner — getting them in and out on time, he added.  Victims of crime need to get their cases heard in a reasonable time — as do defendants — to get some closure.

“From a head-scratching point of view, from a law-and-order point of view, from an access to justice point of view, I just don’t get it,” Buckner said.

Add to that a growing prisoner population in county jails and you have only one solution for keeping the criminal docket moving: cutting deals on sentencing

“When the DA is confronted with a volume of cases that grows enormously, if he’s going to get through the process, he has to do that with the limited number of court dates he’s got assigned, with the staff he’s got – victim witness assistants included,” he added. “And knowing that the jails are now concerned with their limits – the judges, the attorneys, the DAs all understand that – means you make choices about sentencing. So you might let people out who normally should have been in for a while, because you have to.”

The “Mikeys” of the court system

After years of working as a district attorney in Onslow and Chatham counties, interspersed with stints in several foreign countries helping set up judicial systems, Sam Cooper became Clerk of the Superior Court in Chatham County in 2009.

And what he’s seen has been eye-opening. “Nobody I’ve ever sat with truly understands everything that the clerk of court’s office does,” he said.

One out of every four or five citizens will come in contact with the clerk’s office at some point in time, he added, and for more than just processing paperwork.

In North Carolina, the county clerks of court also preside as judges over estate matters, adoptions, foreclosures, condemnations and partitions of property and several other civil matters.

That’s rarely considered though when legislators make budget and policy decisions.

“Anything that’s judicially related, if it doesn’t have a natural, associated fit with judges or DAs, the catch-all assumption is ‘the clerks will do it,’” Cooper said. “We’re the ‘Mikeys’ of the court system,” he added, alluding to the 1970s commercial in which the younger Mikey taste-tests cereal for his older, hesitant brothers.

The Chatham County clerk’s office has consistently been understaffed since Cooper took the job, working with less than 90 percent of what’s needed based on National Center of State Court workload numbers.

Budget cuts there have been felt across the board, but have hit the estates area especially hard.  Filings in that section have doubled since 2001.

“When you think about the retirement communities that have been and continue to be developed here in Chatham County, be it Galloway Ridge, Carolina Meadows and others, we have had a dramatic increase,” Cooper said.   “But we have the same number of personnel.”

The growth in those communities has also increased the number of special proceedings, like incompetency hearings and guardianship appointments, the office has had to handle.

“We’re not only having to work smarter, but instead of having to get rid of backlog, we’re having to manage backlog,” Cooper said.  “And that’s a drastic change for us.”

The office has moved a staff person assigned to the criminal division over to estates and has stopped taking appointments with attorneys and members of the public on Mondays and Fridays. The same is true for foreclosure matters.

“The staff has to have the time to do tasks other than dealing with the public,” he added.

Each county for itself?

Buckner recalls a time when Gov. Pat McCrory, then mayor of Charlotte and the president of the municipal mayors association, led a delegation to the legislature, telling its members that his police chiefs and sheriffs needed more resources to adequately process cases at the district court level.

That’s also when Mecklenburg began paying for additional assistant district attorneys to cover the caseload in district and superior courts – the beginning of counties picking up personnel expenses which under the constitution are the responsibility of the state.

“And now you look at the legislative report and see that somebody from Granville County has filed a bill to reinstate two magistrate positions there that were cut,” Buckner said.  “I imagine they have the same problem we have here. But the way it was explained to me years ago was that you were supposed to let the Administrative Office of the Courts work with the legislature to get a plan that was fair to all 100 counties.”

Cooper agrees that bills like those from Granville and Cumberland (also seeking reinstatement of its magistrate positions) are chiseling away at the constitutionally-mandated unified court system.

But it goes beyond that, he added.  “It goes back to access-to-justice issues. If I’m fortunate enough to live in a county where commissioners have continued to fund a drug court, then I’m in pretty good shape. But not if I’m living in another county. That’s obviously undermining the constitutional guarantees, and that hasn’t been fully appreciated.”

With years of experience helping set up judicial systems abroad, Cooper also wonders if the legislative approach to tackling the budget crisis, with across the board cuts, is just too shortsighted.

“We should start with some sort of collective vision of what an ideal North Carolina court system would look like — what would be the moving parts,” he said.  “Why don’t we lay out this grand plan of what an exemplary court system would be?”