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Fear of cuts leads to early departures from courts

Courts offer voluntary severances in anticipation of tight budget

Sylvia Adcock//February 11, 2011

Fear of cuts leads to early departures from courts

Courts offer voluntary severances in anticipation of tight budget

Sylvia Adcock//February 11, 2011

By SYLVIA ADCOCK, Staff Writer

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In a pre-emptive move to soften the blow of expected budget cuts, the Administrative Office of the Courts implemented a voluntary reduction-in-force earlier this month, directing hiring managers – judges, clerks and district attorneys – to offer severance packages to employees who might benefit.

The move came as the state struggles to close a $2.7 billion gap and just before Gov. Bev Perdue unveils her proposed budget this week. Last week, Perdue announced that the expected $3.7 billion shortfall had been reduced by $1 billion, but lawmakers say they still expect deep spending cuts.

Judge John Smith, director of the AOC, told Lawyers Weekly he wants to make sure the judicial system continues to provide what he called “core services” despite a loss of nearly 200 positions in the last two years.

“We were thinking that would get us through the recession, and then this hit,” Smith said. As of late last week, 150 applicants for the severance packages had been accepted.

James C. Drennan, director of the North Carolina Judicial College at the UNC School of Government, said he has never seen the court system have to absorb cuts over such a sustained period of time. “Usually the cuts are offset by something else or funding is restored,” he said. “Most recently, significant cuts have come on top of each other.”


The concern about the next round of cuts prompted Smith to send a memo marked “URGENT!” to the state’s resident superior court judges, chief district court judges, clerks of superior court and district attorneys.

“It is now becoming apparent that we cannot provide assurances that the court system will be spared a level of cuts beyond which our current vacancy management strategy can meet,” the memo said. In boldface type, the memo said Smith will be “strong in our position that the core services we provide to the people need protection.”

Employees were given less than a week to decide if they wanted to take the severance package.

Mary Beth Grady, civil division chief for the Wake County Clerk of Superior Court, is among those who accepted. She said that in some ways, it wasn’t a tough decision to make since she had planned on retiring soon.

 “But it was a shock,” said Grady, who has been with the clerk’s office nearly 30 years. “Even though I was planning to leave this summer, I wasn’t mentally prepared. My first reaction was tears.”  

Lorrin Freeman, clerk of superior court for Wake County, said she is losing eight employees in addition to Grady, including her criminal division chief. She said it will be especially difficult to do without the “institutional knowledge” those long-time employees brought.

“I am not optimistic that we will survive this budget without significant layoffs throughout the state,” Freeman said, adding that it could have an effect on the system’s efficiency. “I saw an attorney yesterday and I said, ‘We’re going to need your patience.'”

The governor last year asked state agencies to submit budgets identifying cuts they would make if they had to take a 5 percent, 10 percent or 15 percent budget cut. Smith said he calculated that if the budget were reduced 5 percent, the Judicial Department would lose 448 positions. Under an 8 percent budget cut, 733 positions would be lost.

Smith did not submit a list of programs he would cut. “Anything we identified would be gone,” he said. “What we want is the flexibility to administer the cuts so we can continue to provide core services.” He also pointed out that 28 percent of the court system’s budget was constitutionally fixed and cannot be reduced.

Drennan said all parts of the core services must be fully staffed in order for the system to function. “It’s clear that judges and elected officials are the closest to the core, but the question is how broad do you draw that circle? Do you take a little bit of everything?” he said.

A system in which one part is robust and fully funded and another is not doesn’t work, he said, adding, “It doesn’t do you any good if you have a judge and a DA and a public defender in the courtroom and no clerk.” 

Smith made sure to point out that no one would be forced to take the package.

“If you believe your staff is already so thin that no further cuts can be sustained or that any program is so important it cannot be compromised, we will support your decision at this time. However, it is because we cannot assure anyone that future cuts will not be so severe that the positions will be lost anyway that this decision was made.”

In some judicial districts, no employees were identified who would benefit from the severance package and could be let go. In Mecklenburg County, two court reporters applied for the package, but were told they couldn’t take it. The district attorney’s office in Judicial District 20A, which covers Stanly, Richmond and Anson counties, is already down by two positions that it has been unable to fill.

“I have a few employees who have been around long enough that the severance package was somewhat attractive,” said Seth Edwards, district attorney for Judicial District 2, which covers Beaufort, Martin, Hyde, Tyrrell and Washington counties. “Lucky for me they still want to continue to work.”

Judge Joseph E. Turner, chief district court judge in Guilford County, said he was not able to let anyone go. “We can’t afford to lose positions,” he said.

And shutting down programs such as drug court – which helps rehabilitate drug offenders -will not help in the long run, Turner said. “Most of those programs that are working are saving money in the near term or long term. When you change lives you are cutting down future crime,” he said.

Turner said he already had to close civil court on days when too many judges are out because of sickness or other reasons. “By working extra, we can cover when two people are out. … When we get to three, then we are really hurting.”

Turner, the immediate past president of the N.C. Association of District Court Judges, said he’s concerned that the judicial system will be viewed as a state agency rather than the co-equal branch of government that it is.

“You can make a fantastic argument for every social program the state government provides – health, mental health, education. But every one of those depends on scrutiny by courts and access to the courts. The courts are not another agency. To be treated like another agency is not right,” Turner said.

 “We’ve been willing to step up to the plate, but we are now at a point where we are going to need some protection,” Smith said. “We want to do our part. But something precious in our civilization is really in jeopardy.”


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