The North Carolina Court of Appeals  celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. As the court heads into its next half century, Chief Judge Linda McGee has a lot of hopes, but the biggest is for an improved relationship between the judicial branch of government and the people it serves.
McGee, the court’s first female chief judge since 1979, said she and others are trying to do a better job of helping the public understand what exactly the courts do.
“It’s pretty easy for them to get information about the executive office, the Governor’s branch…; it’s easy for them to get information about the General Assembly, they too are well-organized and have good information available online,” she said. “The courts have perhaps not seen that as a major role in the past. You know, we do our job, decide cases and make decisions that are important in people’s lives, but we also realize that we had not been getting out information about what your courts do for you and why they’re important.”
As a way to meet that goal, the Court of Appeals has been holding special sessions across the state and inviting the public to attend and see judges and lawyers in action.
Those who attend are given a packet that includes both an explanation of the cases being argued at the session and informational documents about the Court of Appeals and the judicial branch as a whole.
McGee said the special sessions started last year with the 50th anniversary of the district courts and a one-year goal to have the events in at least half the state.
“By the end of the year, they covered 85 percent of the state in terms of having a special event to honor district court judges,” she said. “I think that really got a substantial word out to people. It sort of invigorated the local bars.”
The McDowell County native said she’s never seen the courts more connected to the people than they currently are in North Carolina, and she credited both Celebrate NC Courts  and the Administrative Office of the Courts communications office.
“We’ve never had this kind of unified opportunity,” McGee said.
The Court of Appeals was created in 1967 to help ease the Supreme Court’s workload. It began with six judges and as its workload increased, so did the court.
The court was expanded to nine judges in 1969, 12 in 1977 and 15 in 2000. The current judges work in panels of three to decide cases.
From Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2016, there were 1,339 appeals filed with the court, 865 petitions and 3,856 motions. During the same period the court disposed of 1,500 appeals (1,366 by written opinion) and 4,456 petitions and motions.
The court’s workload has been a subject of debate this legislative session for state lawmakers, who voted recently to reduce the bench from 15 judges to 12 , despite no significant decrease in cases over the past 10 years.
House Bill 239  is seen by many as another Republican power grab, an effort to prevent Gov. Roy Cooper from being able to appoint judges to the bench.
The court’s 15 members currently include 10 registered Republicans and five registered Democrats, though many current and former local judges have argued strongly  “there are no Democratic judges and Republican judges, just judges.”
The court featured an 11-4 Republican majority until last month when Judge Doug McCullough retired  to prevent his seat from being eliminated by HB 239. Cooper appointed Judge John Arrowood  to replace him.
Sitting members of the Court of Appeals remained neutral about HB 239 during the legislative process, but former judges and experts spoke against the measure.
Judge Donna Stroud tried to present  accurate caseload statistics to lawmakers during a committee meeting but they would not listen to her and continued to cite inaccurate data.
In public speeches about the judiciary since HB 239’s passage, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin has addressed the issue in a more subtle fashion.
He declined during the legislative process to take a stance on the bill, but earlier this week , in commending the court for its work, he seemed to allude to the matter indirectly.
“It’s amazing with only 15 judges for the ninth most populous state that we’re able to have a Court of Appeals that functions that well,” he said.
He has pointed out both this week and previously that the Michigan Court of Appeals has 28 judges, Tennessee appellate court has 24 and Ohio’s has 69.
McGee said she doesn’t sense worry from her colleagues over the changes, and also remained neutral when discussing HB 239.
“We’ll handle it,” she said confidently. “We’re here to decide cases and we’ll decide them in the same manner.”
Did you know?
The North Carolina Judicial Branch launched a “Speakers Bureau,” a free public service that allows individuals and groups across the state to request speakers from the judicial and legal communities. Those speakers will discuss their role within the judicial system and the establishment of the state court system and its impact as a way to educate the public about and connect them with the judicial branch of government. Request a speaker here .
She did express a concern that a smaller court could lead to delays for litigants.
“Efficiency was something that, even maybe before other states were looking at it, we were,” she said. “You’re proud of that. It’s good to feel that you can still be as effective and as fair along with that efficiency. [Under HB 239] our efficiency may not be as stellar as it has been.”
Fortunately, she added, it will be a while before things really start changing. Since McCullough retired, there won’t be another judge slated for retirement until 2019.
“Certainly, we’ll have to be developing a new process to some extent,” McGee said. “Having five panels of three has been very effective. We can count on what it is we’re going to be doing; everybody has an equal number of opportunities to be involved in specific cases, but we’ll just have to come up with a slightly different format.”
McGee also opined that it was not easy for Judge Stroud as a sitting judge to come forward and share numbers at a legislative hearing. She said that in the future, the court may work to make the numbers more easily accessible through improved annual reports.
“Right now it just has numbers; how many cases were filed, how many cases were decided, how many petitions, how many motions,” she said. “Well, it’d be nice to be able to really break those down, to say OK – I think this is still pretty accurate – 60 percent of cases are criminal; it would be nice to know what percentage are workers comp, what percentage are family court matters.”
A slight caseload decrease the court experienced that Republican lawmakers trumpeted in support of their bill was offset to some extent, McGee said, by two things: substantially more complicated issues and the fact that judges write opinions in every case, whether they are published or not.
Lawmakers also added to the court’s workload in December when they established an en banc procedure for the court – a change that permits parties to petition the court to have all 15 judges hear a case, rather than just the three-judge panel.
“That was a Christmas surprise,” McGee said. “And the fact that it went into effect immediately was probably the quickest challenge we’ve had in some time.”
It took a significant block of time for the court to quickly implement such a change and some cases were delayed while the court worked on developing procedures, she said.
The court has since had more than a dozen petitions for en banc hearings.
“A bit of a slow-down in the process will certainly be felt,” McGee said of a reduction of the court. “That doesn’t mean we won’t keep pushing, and we certainly have a fairly innovative court. We’ve done some things that I think we’re all pretty pleased with.”
Those things include creating a mediation process, putting in place special panels, helping other courts with procedures and creating an expeditious process for handling juvenile cases that deal with termination of parental rights (although HB 239 transfers those cases to the Supreme Court beginning in 2019).
McGee said judges on the Court of Appeals realize they have no control over how many or what type of cases they get, so their focus remains on working through their caseload as “efficiently, effectively and as fairly as we can.”
Efficiency is something that is very important to McGee.
“Efficiency in the courts has become an even greater issue because we realize the standard phrase that justice delayed is possibly justice denied,” she said. “We take that seriously. We want to be efficient, effective and fair, and we hope that we can make it clear that those are our priorities.”
Technology is one of the keys to greater efficiency in the future, McGee said.
“Technology is dramatically changing the courts, and certainly ours,” she added. “The idea that you can have everything available right there in just seconds; we’re likely to have better information than we’ve ever had before right there available right away.”
She served on the North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice  Technology Committee. The Commission was convened by Chief Justice Martin.
McGee said of every other issue the commission studied, technology was at the heart of it. It’s the greatest challenge to the courts because they have to be able to use it effectively and share information from the start of the process to the very end.
She said though that technology also makes the court’s workload “more interestingly difficult.”
“Getting it right has always been the goal, but we have to realize people know more,” she said. “The general public will see the outcome of it and have more information than ever before, so I think we owe it to them to stay as current on technology as we possibly can. When we go to our doctor’s office, we expect them to have the latest information and the latest process; the courts are just as vital to people’s lives, so we’ve got to have the latest information and the best process that we can.”
Through the court’s celebrations , McGee said she hopes the public gets a sense that the people within the court system want to make it a good process and an accessible process.
“The courts across the state are open for the use of the public, quite frankly, hopefully, for the betterment of the public,” she added.