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Courts look to lawmakers for money

New legislators have been sworn in, gavels (and lots of them) have been handed out, and the starting gun has sounded on North Carolina’s 2015 legislative session. Among the slew of issues facing this year’s legislature is how to address the needs of a court system that has been stretched to its breaking point by past budget cuts.lightbulb money

Budget negotiations are likely to be contentious. The problems created by cuts to the judicial branch — including a critical shortage of court reporters and worries over finding enough money to pay jurors — are widely recognized. The question is where the legislature will find the money to fill in those gaps in the face of a shortfall in revenues and competition from other sectors of the state budget.

Or, as Sen. Louis Pate put it when the legislature officially convened on Jan. 14, “The swearing-in is taking place today. The swearing-at probably begins tomorrow.”

Lawyers Weekly will be providing regular coverage of the legislature’s negotiations over funding for the court system. As the session kicks off, here are the main storylines that figure to heavily influence the final decisions.

You get a gavel! You get a gavel!

On Jan. 27, new House Speaker Tim Moore announced the assignment of committee chairs for the new session, and in an unexpected move, this year the House will have four co-equal judiciary committees. Last session, the House had one main judiciary committee that oversaw three subcommittees. The Senate will have two judiciary committees, the same as in the previous session.

Rep. Leo Daughtry, chair of the judiciary committee last session, will chair the Judiciary I committee, the only one that will have a single chairman. Daughtry, a lawyer and one of eight representatives named a chairman of a judiciary committee, has long been known as an advocate for the court system. He said that he was hopeful that the legislature would appropriate more money for the courts this year, but that it was hard to predict what might happen due to uncertainty over how much money will be available.

“In this environment, there are a lot of competing interests for money. We’ve got a lot of needs, and we just need to find the money,” Daughtry said. “It makes it very challenging. If there’s not any money, there’s not any money. We’ve cut the court system exponentially since the Great Recession. We’ve done a lot for public education and we’ve done a lot for Medicaid. It’s time for us to something for the court.”

Moore’s spokesperson, Mollie Young, could not be immediately reached for a comment about why the structure of the judiciary committees was changed this session.

Coming up just a bit short

Efforts to increase funding for the judicial branch are complicated by the fact that the state is facing a revenue shortfall. Through Dec. 31, the midway point of the state’s fiscal year, actual revenue trailed projections by just a shade under $200 million. That figure represents just less than one percent of the state’s $21.1 billion budget, but unless addressed it makes the fight for funding between different segments of the budget even more intense.

To put that figure in perspective, total appropriations for the judicial branch for the 2014-2015 fiscal year were just less than $464 million. Last’s year appropriation was less than the court received in the 2009-2010 fiscal year; modest increases the last two years still haven’t made up for cuts from the prior three. In that time, the state’s population has grown substantially, and the portion of the state’s budget devoted to the judiciary has dropped from 3 percent to 2.2 percent—among the lowest shares in the country.

“I think in general, people are concerned that solving the whole budget set of issues will be the theme for this upcoming session,” said Dick Taylor, CEO of North Carolina Advocates for Justice. “So I think there will be interest in addressing these [judicial branch] issues. The question, I think, is will there be the capacity to do so.”

Taylor said that as funding from the General Assembly has failed to increase in recent years, court fees and costs have gone up to compensate, which he said he made it more difficult for citizens to gain access to the courts.

Lawyers on the move

Several sources that spoke to Lawyers Weekly said their optimism about court funding was buoyed by the fact that lawyers are well represented in positions of influence in the new session. Moore, the new speaker, is an attorney, as are returning Speaker Pro Tem Paul Stam and Senate Majority Phil Berger.

“I think all of those folks, because they’re practicing attorneys, understand the issues that the courts face, and we’re hoping they’re supportive in helping to get the courts the funding they need,” said Kim Crouch, Director of Governmental Affairs for the North Carolina Bar Association.

Crouch said that the Bar Association was optimistic about the chances for an increase in funding, given legislators’ acute awareness of the current problems, but acknowledged that it would be important to first see how the revenue figures pan out.

Another important change Crouch and others noted is the election of new Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin, who has made the pursuit of adequate and stable funding for the courts one of the top priorities for the start of his term. Martin has said he plans to ask the court for $30 million in additional funding for the next fiscal year, split between operating funds and salary increases.

“I think he will come to the General Assembly and make his case, and I think it’s a good case, and I think people will want to listen to it, and they’ll believe it,” Daughtry said.

A day’s pay for a day’s work

With about 93 percent of the judicial branch’s budget devoted to personnel costs, the cuts to the budget have necessitated cuts to the workforce that have been impossible to paper over. Since the recession, over 600 positions have been eliminated from court system.

Those cut positions have included trial court administrators and special superior court judges, but one of the most acute shortages the court system currently faces is a lack of court reporters. To make ends meet, the state slashed reporters’ pay, leaving some districts with fewer reporters than they need to make sure that all cases are adequately covered. More recently, concerns have emerged over whether the court system will have enough money to pay jurors for the rest of the fiscal year.

Attorney Keith Merritt, a member of the board of Justice Initiatives, a civic group that works to support adequate funding for the courts, said that the group hopes the legislature will return the reporter rate back to the old rate and restore levels of court funding as a proportion of the state’s budget. Merritt argues that the current rate of spending on the courts isn’t sustainable.

“At what point is the funding so low that it just isn’t functional anymore?” Merritt asked. “North Carolina is at a point where the cuts have been so severe that the courts’ functioning has been very poor. It needs to be a priority for the state. It should be a co-equal branch of government.”

Follow David Donovan on Twitter @NCLWDonovan

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