State legislators moved swiftly to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of the state’s budget, which will now go into effect July 1 and includes several major changes to the state’s judicial branch, including deep cuts to the state’s Department of Justice and much-anticipated legislation to transfer most criminal charges against 16- and 17-year-olds to the juvenile justice system.
Here are the most significant developments for the legal profession that became law as part of this year’s budget:
The DOJ takes a heavy blow
The new budget cuts funding for the state’s Department of Justice by a little more than $10 million over each of the next two years. That’s more than 10 percent of the Department’s current budget, but the legislature put tight restrictions on the areas where Attorney General Josh Stein can find savings, meaning that the cuts to the unprotected departments will be sweeping.
Stein said in a memo that the cuts will require the termination of approximately 123 full-time DOJ employees, more than half of the 239 employees whose salaries are paid out of the state’s general fund. Those attorneys’ work can’t be assumed by other DOJ attorneys because most of the remaining positions are funded from other sources that require them to devote their efforts to specific kinds of work on behalf of the funding source.
“Terminating this many attorneys on such short notice will cause significant disruption to ongoing litigation, with negative consequences for the state,” Stein said. “It will allow minimal time to attempt to transition hundreds of active cases from the attorneys being terminated. This will result in missed deadlines, litigation delays, defaults, negative court orders and awards of attorney fees against the state.”
Stein said that the DOJ will be forced to reject many requests by district attorneys who wish to refer cases to his office. The DOJ handles on average 650 criminal appeals each year, but after the cuts it will no longer be able to handle all criminal appeals, as it does now, nor will it be able to defend all client tort claims and workers’ compensation cases in front of the Industrial Commission.
A spokesperson for the DOJ said that the office had no warning about the cuts, as they weren’t in either the House or Senate’s original budgets.
Raise the Age
After years of unsuccessful efforts, the budget changes state law so that 16- and 17-year-olds charged with all but the most serious of crimes will be prosecuted as juveniles rather than adults. The change brings North Carolina in line with the rest of the country—New York amended its laws earlier this year, leaving North Carolina as the last state in the country that prosecuted minors accused of misdemeanors as adults.
The “Raise the Age” law included in the budget made several significant changes over past unsuccessful efforts, which helped bring on board support from the state’s law enforcement community. Its language reflected recommendations published by the North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice, and Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin personally urged legislators to support the change.
Under the new law, young offenders accused of Class A through E felonies—violent crimes, essentially—will be automatically transferred to superior court. The NCCALJ’s recommendations noted that of all 16- and 17-year olds convicted of crimes in 2014, only 3.3 percent were convicted of Class A-E felonies, while 16.3 were convicted of lesser felonies. The remaining 80.4 percent were misdemeanor convictions.
Access to Civil Justice Act repealed
The budget repeals the Access to Civil Justice Act, which served to provide access to legal representation for indigent persons in certain kinds of civil matters. Under the law, funds from criminal and civil court costs were provided to the State Bar to be allocated to three organizations: Legal Aid of North Carolina, Pisgah Legal Services and Legal Services of Southern Piedmont. Funding from the ACJA contributed $1.7 million to those organizations’ budgets last year, already down from slightly more than $5 million as recently as 2008.
The move is the latest a pattern of cuts that have eviscerated funding for legal aid in the state. Several years ago the legislature eliminated LANC’s annual appropriation from general funds. On top of that, the federal government is currently contemplating shrinking or eliminating Legal Services Corp, a federally funded non-profit that provides around half of LANC’s funding.
“We are talking about cutting bone. [LANC] is the only statewide civil legal aid provider. We only serve a fraction of the people out there who need help every year, so it’s only a question of how many more people are going to go without help,” said Sean Driscoll, director of public relations for LANC. “We take this as saying that what we do, civil legal aid, is not important, that our work is not important.”
UNC Law sees compromise cut
The budget reduces funding to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Law by $500,000 in each of the next two years, a 4 percent reduction. The Senate, as part of its proposed budget, voted to cut $4 million in funding for the law school, which would have been a 30 percent cut. There were no cuts in a subsequent budget proposal offered by the House, so the smaller cut reflected a compromise between the chambers. In 2015, the Senate proposed cutting $3 million from the law school’s budget, which did not survive negotiations with the House.
A spokesperson for the school said the school would not be able to offer a comment on the cut in time for the print edition of this story.
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