Justice on Life Support

Bill Cannon was the featured speaker at the Waynesville Kiwanis Club on August 16, 2011.  Bill spoke on the terrible damage done to the judicial branch of government by this year’s budget bill passed by the North Carolina General Assembly.

It is hardly accurate to refer to the judicial branch as an equal branch of government when it receives less than 3% of the state budget, ranks second to last in the number of judges per capita, and ranks 50th in percentage of justice and public safety funding spent on courts.  Yet, with such a small portion of the budget appropriated to the judiciary, this year’s budget cut $38 million from their budget.  55 positions have been eliminated from prosecutors’ offices around the state.

North Carolina Legal Aid, an organization that provides legal assistance to persons too poor to afford legal counsel, has had a 10% cut in its appropriations, resulting in the closing of three offices and the elimination of 30 positions.  The poor and those people living in rural areas are being asked to bear the brunt of the cuts.

In an amazingly short sighted move, the legislature eliminated funding for drug treatment courts.  These programs were diverting drug using offenders from the prison system into supervised programs to get them off drugs at savings of $4,000 -$12,000 per participant.

This attack on the judiciary comes at a time when our representatives want to be able to claim that they are avoiding tax increases.  But are they?  They increased filing fees in Superior Courts from $125 to $200, in District Courts from $80 to $150 and in Magistrate (Small Claims) Courts from $55 to $96.  Fees for serving a summons were doubled.

One might think that these fee increases would help fund the judiciary and ease their budget crisis.  However, the legislature provided that the vast majority of these increases would not be used to adequately fund the judiciary, but would be dumped into the General Fund to be used as the legislature wishes.

If you think this is bad, wait until next year!  There are bills pending to end public financing of judicial elections and abolish nonpartisan judicial elections. That’s really what we need for these troubled time—judges being indebted to wealthy special interests and political influence peddlers!  In my more than 30 years of practice I have never found a Democratic or Republican principle of law.  Our country and our state were founded on the principle that justice must be dispensed fairly without regard to a person’s political persuasion.  If we turn our back on that important tradition, we place our form of government at grave risk.

Fortunately, the North Carolina Bar Association has found bipartisan support for legislation that will have candidates for judge nominated by a bipartisan nominating committee.  The winner of that election will face the voters in periodic retention elections.  It’s a huge step in the right direction.  I encourage all North Carolinians to support this move toward common sense in our judicial elections.

The North Carolina Constitution contains this important provision:  “All courts shall be open; every person for an injury done him in his lands, goods, person or reputation shall have remedy by due course of law; and right and  justice shall be administered without favor, denial, or delay.”  Our legislators are ignoring the constitution and denying justice to our citizens.  The ultimate cost of this ill conceived approach will be far more than the alleged savings they claim.