A newly enacted bipartisan state budget contains long-needed new investments for the state’s court system that judicial branch officials believe will help move the state and its judiciary forward.
Officials with the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts say that the budget, the largest investment ever in the judicial branch, provides historic, “truly transformative support for state courts.” Over the next two years, hundreds of millions of dollars will be invested in the judicial system to help address its most pressing needs—saving and creating jobs in the judicial branch, funding an integral information technology infrastructure, and financing innovative court pilot programs.
Besides providing for salary increases and bonuses to existing employees, the budget will allow the court system to beef up its work force by hiring additional, vital personnel including deputy clerks, Guardian ad Litem advocates, magistrates, judges, and more business court, clerk, and commission staff positions.
“It invests in our personnel, our people here in the Judicial Branch, and allowed the Branch to retain hundreds of employees essential to fulfilling the Branch’s constitutional mandate to keep courts open to administer justice,” NCAOC deputy director Ryan Boyce said.
Around $140 million will go toward constructing at least two new courthouses and renovating and repairing others. Counties statewide will be able to invest in everything from upgrading HVAC systems to adding new space, said Boyce.
“In some of these middle-size counties you may have a couple of people in the courthouse, you may have an annex across the street,” Boyce said. “I know there’s at least one county where the DAs are in an old home somewhere near the courthouse square. Hopefully this will … bring everybody together under one roof in a workable environment they can be proud of.”
Chief Justice Paul Newby said that the resources will keep courts open and help reduce a significant case backlog created in large part by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The budget provides the funding needed to deliver improvements for countless North Carolinians who depend on our courts,” Newby wrote in a press release. “It will help us fulfill our constitutional mandate of open courts that administer justice without favor, denial, or delay.”
Improving technology was another top priority for the NCAOC. Newby said that while “not quite as bad as cavemen chiseling on stone,” the state’s current filing system is inefficient and antiquated, paper-based and backed up on 1980s-style mainframes.
Now, files can be moved from boxes in basements and attics to a cloud-based platform as the branch transitions to eCourts, a comprehensive, integrated case management system that will allow for more efficient court operations and day and night access to the courts.
Boyce said that the incorporation of criminal, civil, and financial systems will prove gainful and that remote access to the courts will benefit everyone from small business owners looking to conveniently file a claim to domestic violence victims who may not want to risk seeing their abuser at the courthouse.
“Moving everything digital will remove the burden for a lot of people and just make the whole process more efficient,” Boyce said.
Stakeholders across the judicial system found other reasons for cheer in the new budget. The Conference of District Attorneys was facing a potential hardship after learning last year that its federally funded Victims of Crime Act grants wouldn’t be renewed. The conference’s legislative liaison, Chuck Spahos, said that the loss of victim services would mean losing 150 positions of those who directly contact and impact crime victims.
“One of the challenges we’ve always had with those positions is the fact that every two years we’d have to ask for renewed funding,” Spahos said. “I certainly want to thank … the legislative leadership for … making sure those positions became permanently funded.”
Spahos is also inspired by the opportunity not only to bring on additional assistant district attorneys, but to retain veteran ADAs who can best help clear the court backlog of serious, complicated cases. He said that plea agreements happen only when prosecutors know they can try the cases and defendants know that they will.
“Having sufficient experienced prosecutors that can have access to the court time to try those cases is what gets those serious cases disposed of,” Spahos said.
The North Carolina Lawyers Education Assistance Fund, meanwhile, has sought for more than 30 years to ease the financial burden of public interest attorneys by offering law school tuition repayment assistance. The agency cites student loan debt as the overwhelming reason attorneys decline or depart from positions as public defenders or prosecutors.
Grant funding for the program has historically ebbed and flowed, LEAF Executive Director Katherine Asaro said. But for the next two years, at least, “immeasurably beneficial” budget money will ensure that many more public interest attorneys are able to continue helping people who couldn’t otherwise afford it.
“They are true public servants. They made the decision to give up on certain things to serve the citizens of North Carolina,” Asaro said. “That’s a true organic thing, that dedication, and if we can make their lives a little easier … we’re in a perfect position to do it.”
In anticipation of the new funds, the Indigent Defense Services Commission voted in October to increase rates for privately assigned counsel (PAC), something it has worked toward since being forced to reduce rates a decade ago. The increase will not restore compensation to where it was before 2011, even before adjusting for inflation, but at least brings it closer.
The new PAC fund is projected to contain $6.8 million, and new hourly compensation rates will become effective Jan. 1. District court rates will increase from $55 to $65, according to the commission, which has listed all applicable hourly rates on its website. Dorothy Hairston Mitchell, chair of the IDS Commission, wrote in a press release that the commission carefully considered how to best allocate the money and is seeking recurring funding that will reflect the value of work performed by PAC.
Newby said that while the budget is imperfect, it is overdue and necessary. “On balance,” Newby said, “the good outweighs the bad.”
Changes and implementations will not occur overnight, of course, but after years without a comprehensive budget in place, hopes are high.
“I’m just grateful,” Asaro said. “We haven’t been in a position to help so many people for so long—it’s a huge difference.”
Follow Heath Hamacher on Twitter @NCLWHamachert