Before the 1960s North Carolina had a hodgepodge of local courts below the state superior court. In one place or another there were general county and city courts, county criminal courts, domestic relations courts, juvenile courts and recorders courts. Some were established by general state law, many by local act of the General Assembly. Then there were mayors’ courts and justices of the peace. The judges of these local courts — estimated at about 1,400 local courts scattered around the state — were usually part-time and many were paid by the fees they collected. There was no uniformity in the kinds of cases the courts could hear or the procedure they followed.
State constitutional amendments in the early 1960s created a uniform statewide court system. All courts were placed in the General Court of Justice and those various local courts and justices of the peace were replaced with the new district court and magistrates. The jurisdiction of the courts and their rules and procedure were to be the same statewide; all judges were to be chosen by the same method; and all judges and court employees were to be salaried rather than depending on fees. A state Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) was created and assigned responsibility for running the system. Article IV, Section 20 of the constitution specifies that the legislature is to establish a uniform statewide schedule of fees and that the “operating expenses of the judicial department . . . shall be paid from State funds.” By statute, GS 7A-302, counties are responsible for providing courtrooms and other facilities.
This division of fiscal responsibilities — the State pays all operating expenses and counties provide courthouses — was intended to establish uniformity in actuality. Judges, clerks, judicial assistants, prosecutors, etc., all would be paid by the state and would be paid the same regardless of whether they worked in Charlotte or Whiteville, and the number of positions needed in each district would be determined by the AOC applying a standardized needs assessment.
Fifty years on from the creation of the General Court of Justice that uniformity has begun to break down. Local governments have been given the green light by the legislature to supplement the funding of court operations, and the larger counties are adding positions and functions that their less prosperous neighbors cannot afford.
This change has come about through a series of statutes enacted in the last decade or so authorizing counties and cities to contract with the AOC for support of certain categories of positions in their communities. The core statutes are GS 153A-212.1 for counties and GS 160A-289.1 for cities. The wording is identical and each authorizes the local government to appropriate funds to contact with the AOC “for the provision of services for the speedy disposition of cases involving drug offenses, domestic violence, or other offenses involving threats to public safety.”
Those general enabling laws are matched by a series of statutes in Chapter 7A, the courts chapter, authorizing the AOC to enter contracts with local governments for defined activities. These include GS 7A-44.1 (judicial secretaries for superior court judges), GS 7A-64 (assistant DAs), GS 7A-102 (assistant and deputy clerks of court) and GS 7A-498.7 (assistant public defenders). In each instance the statute requires the official requesting AOC approval of the contract for local support — the senior resident superior court judge, the clerk of court, the district attorney or public defender — to show that “the overwhelming public interest warrants the use of additional resources for the speedy disposition of cases involving drug offenses, domestic violence, or other offenses involving a threat to public safety.” There does not seem to be any difficulty in making that showing.
The contracts between the AOC and local governments for the most recently completed fiscal year amounted to nearly $8 million in local support. Counties and cities were paying for assistant DAs, emergency judges, victim witness coordinators, assistant clerks, investigators, legal assistants, drug treatment court personnel and so on. The contracts were all in twelve counties, usually with the county but sometimes with a city and sometimes both. Not surprisingly, Charlotte/Mecklenburg led with over $4 million in local support. Guilford was next with $1.3 million, then Winston-Salem/Forsyth with $770,000, Durham city and county with $326,000 and Raleigh/Wake with $320,000. Others providing local funding were Union, Brunswick, Haywood, Alamance, Cumberland and Orange counties and Asheville and Buncombe County.
A sampling of the locally funded positions show:
- An emergency judge for a “Nuisance Court” in Asheville.
- An assistant DA to prosecute gang offenses in Durham.
- An investigator for the DA’s office in Raleigh.
- A deputy clerk for an infractions court in Winston-Salem/Forsyth.
- An assistant DA and victim witness coordinator for domestic violence cases in Brunswick.
- A program manager, administrative assistant and screeners for pre-trial screening services in Guilford.
- A coordinator and case manager for a High Point drug treatment court.
The 2010 enactment of GS 7A-300.1 will take local funding a step further. Under that statute the AOC now may contract with counties and cities with a population of 300,000 or more — that means Mecklenburg, Wake, Guilford, Forsyth and Cumberland counties and the cities of Charlotte and Raleigh — to supplement the salaries of court employees other than the judges, elected clerks, elected DAs and magistrates. At some time in the near future, then, there may be assistant and deputy clerks in Raleigh, say, making more than their counterparts in Smithfield, and assistant DAs in Guilford getting higher salaries than prosecutors in next door Alamance.
Moreover, the AOC contracts are really only part of the story. Several local governments are funding court-related positions directly rather than through contracts with the AOC. A county might hire investigators for the sheriff’s department, for example, and assign them to assist the DA’s office. Or, has happened recently with the elimination of state funding for the popular drug treatment courts, a county or city may be putting counselors or secretaries on the local payroll and assigning them to assist court personnel. Guilford pre-trial screening employees and Mecklenburg drug treatment court personnel, for example, now are on the counties’ payrolls instead of being paid through contracts with the AOC. When this kind of direct local funding is considered, the Charlottle/Mecklenburg trial court administrator estimates that the total local financial support for the courts is closer to $6.3 million than the $ 4 million shown in AOC contracts. Indeed, local funding accounts for about 19 percent of overall Mecklenburg court funding based on full-time positions.
During the Depression the state took over funding of public school operations, including all teachers and administrators salaries, leaving counties responsible only for providing buildings. Over the years, though, supplemental local funding for teachers salaries and other operating expenses became an accepted way of life, and significant disparities developed in the funding of public schools from county to county. Are the courts headed in the same direction? Are we reaching a point where some kinds of judicial services — drug treatment courts, for example — will be available only in counties where local governments can afford to provide the funding, and will not be available to citizens in other parts of the state? Or has uniformity been employed too rigidly in the courts and are different funding formulas needed to address the stark differences in the volume and kinds of cases and costs of living between urban and rural areas? If so, should that additional funding come from the state or local governments?