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Parker: Rising revenue no salve for budget cuts

Last year’s prediction that the state’s judicial branch would begin to see signs of financial recovery by now was premature, Chief Justice Sarah Parker said June 25 in her state of the judiciary address at the N.C. Bar Association’s annual meeting.
According to Chief Justice Parker, the hope that revenues would increase and alleviate some of the strain caused by state budget cuts has not materialized.
She said the 2009-10 reduction of $43.8 million in appropriations to the judicial department would have resulted in the elimination of 47 positions throughout the court system. However, layoffs were avoided by eliminating vacant positions.
This year, the Administrative Office of the Courts is no longer able to provide a workaround. Twenty AOC employees were laid off June 30, according to agency spokesperson Sharon Gladwell.
“When vacancies cannot be filled, the capacity of the courts to handle their caseloads and provide the services expected of our citizens coming to the courthouse is compromised,” Parker said.
According to Parker, district courts continue to be hardest-hit, with 45,000 child-support cases and more than 90,000 domestic cases filed at the end of fiscal year 2009.
Civil actions including debt-collection and foreclosures have also “skyrocketed,” Parker said.
Further cuts to the judicial branch were included in the 2010-11 budget signed by Gov. Bev Perdue last week. The severity of the hit to the judiciary and whether more cuts will be necessary will depend on whether over half a billion dollars in federal Medicaid funds will come into the state, Parker said.
“The picture is not pretty. But in all candor, I must admit to you that the lawyer-legislators who chair the justice and public safety subcommittees in the House and Senate and other lawyer-legislators at the appropriations committees have worked with us for the best possible outcomes for the judicial branch in these unprecedented times,” Parker said. “I would be remiss if I did not express my appreciation to them for their efforts on our behalf.”
Parker also cited as a challenge the inability of legal aid agencies to help the large number of low-income citizens who qualify for services. She encouraged lawyers to step up their pro bono efforts.
“We all know that a pro se litigant is at a distinct disadvantage in navigating the procedures and evidentiary rules in the courtroom,” she said.
The chief justice also urged the bench and bar to remain focused on the principles of professionalism.
“If we in the profession are not ever-vigilant to maintain the highest standards of ethics and excellence, our detractors and we have many will pounce on the opportunity to deprive us of the privilege of self-regulation,” she said.

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