Expectations are so low when it comes to funding the state’s court system that a budget without obvious cuts is now lauded as a victory.
“We are pleased that the budget as proposed by the General Assembly recognizes the need for funding the court system,” Sharon Gladwell, Communications Director for the Administrative Office of the Courts said in an email.
“When signed by the governor, the budget will help fund some of the statutory requirements that have been underfunded for a number of years, and it will help with the much needed modernization of technology and information systems.”
True, the budget as proposed by the Conference Committee this week actually funds some of the judicial system’s critical needs, like paying jury members and interpreters, and tosses some dollars in for the initial stages of the long-overdue overhaul of court technology.
But it comes nowhere near full-funding of a court system that’s seen its operating budget slashed by more than 40 percent since 2008, more than 600 needed employees dropped from its payroll and successful programs like drug treatment courts eliminated.
Back at the beginning of the legislative session, Chief Justice Mark Martin characterized the state’s third branch of government as teetering on the brink of a funding emergency.
“I would characterize it as getting fairly close to 911,” Martin told Capitol Tonight viewers then, offering up examples — judges on the taxpayer’s dime and attorneys billing their clients waiting to proceed in the courtroom for a court reporter who’s doing double-time elsewhere in the building because of staffing cuts, or jurors possibly serving without pay.
Martin said then that he was confident lawmakers would understand the needs and properly fund the courts, and went on to ask them for $30 million, because “because we need $30 million,” he told WRAL  at the time. That was the bare minimum needed to fund the judicial branch, he said.
For a time after, expectations grew that funds close to that amount might actually find their way into court coffers – after all, lawmakers were touting a surplus – and the House in May actually proposed $19 million to fund court technology.
The Senate dashed those hopes in June though with a budget that barely funded technology and did little more to boost the judicial system’s operating budget.
The end result now for the courts, should the House approve the latest budget finally negotiated after a summer of stalling and the Governor sign it into law, doesn’t quite amount to the $30 million the Chief Justice said was critical.
Over two years, the courts will get $3.6 million to jump start an electronic filing system, $9 million to pay its operating expenses and $1.5 million to meet its constitutional obligations to jurors, interpreters and expert witnesses.
Compare those numbers to the $8 million lawmakers in the majority party have set aside to pay their lawyers in cases challenging their legislative agenda and it’s easy to see that as a group they don’t quite appreciate the Chief Justice’s plea for help.
Unlike other entities competing for funding – state agencies, for example – the judiciary is a separate and equal branch of government, and the legislature’s obligation to fund it sufficiently is constitutionally based.
Certainly since 2008, meeting that obligation has been a challenge for lawmakers here and elsewhere across the country – particularly given the competing demands on limited dollars in the government purse.
What’s often overlooked, though, is that the court system is one of the budget’s largest revenue generators. Monies received by the courts through fees, fines and penalties are remitted to the state general fund, out of which lawmakers then appropriate funds for court salaries and operating expenses.
In recent years, the amounts the courts have returned to the general fund, citizens of the state and other entities have dwarfed the appropriations received from the legislature.
In 2013-14 , for example, the courts remitted more than $740 million to the state and its residents. In return, they received $456 million from lawmakers to keep the courthouses open, pay personnel and provide constitutionally mandated services.
That appropriation – yet another cut  — was far less than needed to meet staffing levels and other necessary expenses as determined by the National Center for State Courts.
And it came at a time when the courts already had little left to give.
By the 2014 short session, the AOC had already met cuts by eliminating more than 600 court positions through attrition, voluntary reductions-in-force and involuntary layoffs.
And it all but gave up on requests for technology funds, which had been slashed by 40 percent from $45 million in 2011 to $27 million in 2014.
What’s different then about this year’s budget is that a few more of the dollars the court system dumps into the general fund are being returned to it to meet essential needs – but not nearly enough.
Back in February, Judge John Smith, then director of the AOC, sent lawmakers a letter  detailing court funding requests for the next two years.
Smith – not known for overstating the courts’ needs — asked for $16 million to restore the operating budget. “Since 2008, the North Carolina judiciary general fund has lost 41.4% of essential operating line items,” he said.
With the proposed budget, the courts will get roughly $10 million to operate.
Smith asked for $7.5 million to begin to shift the courts to electronic filing and processing.
With the proposed budget, the courts will get $3.5 million to get that underway.
And he asked for $40 million to restore the 536 court positions outside experts had said were needed for North Carolina courts to meet their workload.
Read more about our courts in crisis in these Policy Watch stories: