Raleigh, N.C. — North Carolina's top judge wants an additional $30 million from state lawmakers in the upcoming state budget to address what he calls a decades-old problem: An underfunded and understaffed court system.
"I'm asking for $30 million, because we need $30 million," Chief Justice Mark Martin said recently, adding that he is asking for the bare minimum – no more and no less – of what is needed to staff the judicial branch.
"This directly affects public safety," he said.
According to the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts, the judicial branch's operating budget has been reduced 41.4 percent and its work force more than 10 percent over the last six years.
About 1 cent of every tax dollar is spent on the courts, and about 93 percent of the court system's current $464 million budget compensates for personnel.
The lack of staff, Martin says, creates a backlog of cases, which can lead to charges being reduced or dropped in criminal courts.
"According to metrics developed by the National Center for State Courts, we are about 600 positions short," he said. "The fewer resources you have in a justice system, the greater pressure upon (district attorney) offices to plea bargain criminal offenses. I don't think that's what the people of North Carolina want."
One of the greatest personnel needs, Wake Chief District Judge Robert Rader says, is more judges.
In Wake County District Court alone, 18 judges preside over the 200,000 civil and criminal cases ranging from child custody to divorce to traffic offenses and driving while impaired citations.
Rader likens the caseload to sand in an hourglass.
"They're being pushed through this hourglass, which is the courthouse and the courtrooms, and unless you expand that passage, it takes a lot of time," Rader said.
Martin, who was elected to his current post in November, will address a joint session of the General Assembly in a State of the Judiciary Wednesday at 4 p.m. – the first time a chief justice has spoken to the legislature since 2001.
Senior legislative leaders say they agree the courts need more funding and that they look forward to hearing Martin's plans.
"He makes a great case that we have not funded the court system adequately," Rep. Leo Daughtry, R-Johnston, said.
Daughtry is co-chairman of the Joint Appropriations on Justice and Public Safety committee. He says it is not a question of whether lawmakers want to help the courts but if they have the money to give.
He adds that the court system has a number of needs, pointing specifically to an outdated information technology system and the fact that Superior and District court records are still kept on paper.
In addition, he points to prison guards in need of pay raises.
Sen. Buck Newton – R-Wilson and co-chairman of the Appropriations on Justice and Public Safety Committee in the Senate – agrees.
Both say, however, it would take several budgets, not just one, to address everything needed in the court system.
"I think there's a very strong consensus that the needs are truly there," Newton said.