Last month, when candidates for the N.C. Supreme Court sat down for interviews with North Carolina Lawyers Weekly, they pointed out that on Jan. 1, the state’s highest court’s caseload is going to increase exponentially – by at least 100, by their estimations.
That’s because termination of parental right cases will take an express elevator directly from North Carolina’s District Courts to the Supreme Court, with no stop at the Court of Appeals.
And that’s due to the controversial House Bill 239, which reduces the number of Court of Appeals judges from 15 to 12 through attrition. The same bill includes the provision that the state’s highest court will start hearing termination of parental rights case appeals starting 2019.
“This TPR provision of the bill was an ‘addendum’ near the end of the bill’s life cycle in the House, which is what leads me to believe it was politically motivated,” said Ketan Soni, a family law attorney with Hull and Chandler in Charlotte.
Whatever the politics behind the bill amid concerns about the Supreme Court’s light caseload compared to that of the Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court itself will feel the impact much more than attorneys, Soni said.
“This won’t terribly affect attorneys,” he said. “In fact, in some cases, it will make things quicker because there will only be one level of appeal. For instance, right now, someone could appeal a termination of parental rights case first to the Court of Appeals. If they ‘get it wrong’, there is the final appeal to the Supreme Court. This bypasses the Court of Appeals, of course.”
However, the Supreme Court tends to be “highly precedent oriented,” he said, so changing the law through cases would take longer, he said.
“That’s actually O.K, as most TPR changes are through the legislature anyway,” Soni said.
In a bit of irony, Gov. Roy Cooper, who vetoed House Bill 239, has filed a lawsuit regarding it, and the Supreme Court said last month that it would hear arguments about whether the the legislature has the power to reduce the number of Court of Appeals judges. That case is bypassing the Court of Appeals because of conflict of interest concerns and is going straight to the Supreme Court.
Whatever the outcome of the case, when it comes to the TPR provision, Andrew Brendle, also of Hull and Chandler, concurs with his colleague.
“Parents might get quicker results on appeals,” he said. “Attorneys would have to be more versed with practicing in front of the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court’s caseload will increase substantially, because there are lots of TPR cases appealed every year. The biggest change will be on the court, and not the parents or attorneys.”
And that includes attorneys’ bank accounts.
“Even though a layer is gone, the vast majority of cases from the appellate level were not heard or appealed further to the Supreme Court,” Soni said. “That would have required a dissent at the appellate level, or certification for the Court of Appeals, that a particular case was appropriate to be heard at the Supreme Court level. Those are few and far between as far as TPR cases (go).”
For her part, Anita Earls, who will take her seat on the Supreme Court Jan. 1 after defeating Barbara Jackson and Chris Anglin in November for it, told Lawyers Weekly in October that she is eager to see the Supreme Court take on more cases.
“I have heard from lawyers across the state that the Supreme Court is not taking enough cases, that there are too many issues that get decided by one panel, the Court of Appeals,” she said. “That seems to be a very common concern. It also seems to be addressable by taking more cases and increasing the justices’ workload, and it is incumbent upon us to do that. As judges, we are public servants, and we owe it to the people to work as hard as we can.”
Follow Bill Cresenzo on Twitter @bcresenzonclw