The Past, Present, and Future of the Courts

July 22, 2009

By Douglas J. Brocker

An important part of our roles as members of the 10th Judicial District Bar is to act as stewards for the court system in Wake County. We all need to be aware of and advocate for the court system’s present needs, plan for its future, and recognize and honor our past. I begin and focus most of this message on issues regarding the present status of funding for the Tenth Judicial District Court system because it is the most pressing concern, as is often the case. The recent meeting of the Bench-Bar Committee on May 28 this year was one of the most informative, and alarming, of the numerous meetings I have attended over the past 18 months as President and President-elect. I only summarize the highlights of the discussions and what we as members can do about issues impacting the courts, now and in the near future.

Protecting the Present

The limited funding provided to the courts over many years and the recent and proposed severe budget cuts, caused by the economic downturn, have combined to cause real threats to essential judicial functions. Important but non-core programs and activities were reduced or eliminated in past years because of limited judicial funding, even when state resources existed. As a result, the current proposed budget cuts are targeted at the heart of the court system.

The current proposal passed by the House would cut over $39 million or 8% of the courts’ budget. As examples, the current proposed House budget would severely reduce many operating line items, eliminate Special Superior Court Judge and numerous other court-related positions, continue system-wide hiring freezes, and reduce the already inadequate rate for appointed criminal cases. Other even more severe cuts to the courts’ budget have been considered this year in the Legislature but are not in the current House proposal. The budget process is ongoing, however, and these other more Draconian cuts could reemerge as the General Assembly continues to look for options to reduce proposed cuts to education and human services.

To date, the courts and other public officials in Wake County have done an amazing job of stretching shrinking resources to deal with expanding demands and caseloads. As an example, Wake County’s 17 District Court Judges have been handling a caseload that should be done by almost 26 judges, according to an analysis by the National Center for State Courts sanctioned by the AOC. This means that the current, dedicated District Court Judges are handling over 50% more cases than they should on average. Part of the reason the District Court bench has been able to absorb this staggering additional load is the leadership, cooperation and collegiality among the judges, which is not always the case in other districts. The situation is similar in the Superior Court, where members of the bench have worked together to handle far more than their fair share of cases. Members of the Clerk, District Attorney and Public Defender’s offices also have answered the call to handle increasingly more cases with significantly less resources.

There is a point, however, where the heroic efforts of our court and public officials can no longer ensure that the essential judicial functions are promptly conducted and effectively performed. From the discussion at the recent meeting, it appears that we are approaching or near that critical point. For example, in both District and Superior Courts, the use and assistance of Retired Judges and Emergency Judges has helped handle the increasing case load. The current budget proposal would eliminate or severely restrict funds available for these Retired and Emergency Judges. This proposal potentially could result in courtrooms being closed at times because there simply will not be enough Judges to preside in them.

Another aspect of court operations that has reached or is quickly reaching that critical point is in basic office supplies. For example, recent situations were discussed at the meeting in which parties could not exchange discovery and other documentation in serious criminal cases simply because the offices did not have basic materials, such as discs and paper, to produce what was required. Additionally, the courts are lacking basic materials, such as paper and toner, to issue orders and other notices. While much of this discussion related to criminal cases, the judicial officials present indicated that civil cases also would be impacted because certain criminal matters would have to be given priority.

From this discussion, an idea emerged of something we, as members of the Bar, can do to assist the judicial system with its most pressing needs. The Wake County Bar Association is organizing an “Office Supply Drive” in connection with its upcoming July monthly luncheon. The WCBA has obtained information from the offices of the Courts, Clerk, District Attorney and Public Defender and compiled a list of the most critically needed office supplies necessary to ensure the continued essential operations of our judicial system. This list was sent to all members of the Tenth previously and is set out separately in an announcement in this edition of the Flyer.

All firms and members of the WCBA and the Tenth are encouraged to donate items from this list. The WCBA will gather all the materials and divide them equitably amongst the different offices. Because of ethical considerations for both the donating members and receiving judicial and other public officials, it is important that the WCBA receive the necessary supplies and deliver them without indicating their direct source.

Donations will be accepted at the WCBA lunch meeting, which is occurring on July 7, 2009 at Sisters Garden. The WCBA also will accept donations made to the Wake County Bar Foundation with “Office Supply Drive” in the memo line. Any such funds will be used to purchase and distribute needed office supplies. If you are unable to attend the lunch meeting or are only a member of the 10th Judicial District Bar, you can deliver office supply donations to the Wake County Courthouse on July 6 or July 7 between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.  There will be space set aside for supply donations in the mail room on the mezzanine level in the courthouse.

Fortunately, we are not called upon to risk life, liberty or freedom to protest against actions that threatened to topple our judicial system, as our brethren lawyers recently have been in other countries, such as in Pakistan and Burma. A donation of these critically-needed office supplies is a relatively small gesture we can all make to act as good stewards of the court system. I hope that you will join me and other members of the WCBA and Tenth Judicial District in doing so. Our collective effort will be very important to continuing essential judicial operations in Wake County.

Planning for the Future

Even though their current needs are critical, it is encouraging that our judicial officials and other members continue to look past these urgent matters and plan for the future of the Wake County Courts. For example, numerous court officials and others have spent countless hours on the continuing effort to make the future and much-needed Justice Center in Wake County a reality. The future Justice Center, to be located across Salisbury Street from the current courthouse, is planned to contain significant space dedicated to public records but the majority for courtroom-related business in criminal cases. In part because of the efforts of our court officials and members, the Justice Center currently still is on track to open in stages in 2013. Our court officials and members also have been integrally involved in renovations to the existing courthouse, which will continue to be used for the civil courts after the new Justice Center opens. We should be particularly grateful that these officials have focused their efforts on making the new and renovated judicial facilities practical and easier for the public, lawyers, and court officials to use.

Two other ongoing projects involving the court system promise to modernize the way records will be kept and information searched in the future. First, the Tenth Judicial District will be the first major metropolitan court system to begin implementing an electronic filing system called “Eflex.” AOC currently is operating pilot programs in two small counties and plans to move next to Wake County. The system initially would permit, but not require, documents to be filed electronically and payments to be made online. The system would be phased in with the ultimate goal being paperless civil filings that could be searched and accessed online throughout the state. Second, officials from Wake County and elsewhere are working on a new software database to integrate criminal justice information. The goal of this program is to create a new unified system that would allow officials to search for information about an individual from around the state.

Honoring the Past

Finally, we cannot effectively move forward into the future without knowing our past. The Tenth Judicial District Bar continues to do an outstanding job of paying tribute to our past and honoring deceased members who practiced in the courts. For many years, the Tenth’s Memorial Committee has organized ceremonial court sessions for its deceased members. Because of the bars increasing size, these ceremonies are now held semiannually in June and December of each year. Our most recent ceremony on June 19 honored six recently deceased members of the Bar.

The honorees included a former Supreme Court Justice, the former Clerk of Court in Wake County and Director of the AOC, an individual who had served in positions in all three branches of government, and several attorneys in private practice and the public sector. Several of the honorees were blessed with long lives and careers. Unfortunately, many of the honorees were taken entirely too soon, with one just having begun her career as an attorney.

From the presentations given by their friends and colleagues, it was obvious that all the honorees served the profession with dedication and distinction. The number of individuals present at the ceremony demonstrated the number of lives and individuals impacted by the honorees. I want to express our appreciation to the members of the Memorial Committee for their time and effort in coordinating the ceremony. Their work is important not only to the friends and family of the honorees but also to all of us to recognize our past and to properly honor our fellow, departed members of the Bar.