REMARKS

of

CHIEF JUSTICE BURLEY B. MITCHELL, JR.

SUPREME COURT OF NORTH CAROLINA

to the

ROTARY CLUBS OF LEE COUNTY (SANFORD, JONESBORO, SAN-LEE)

September 16, 1997

Sanford, NC

12:00 Noon

 

 

THANK YOU ALL SO MUCH FOR ASKING ME TO BE HERE WITH YOU THIS AFTERNOON. WHEN I BECAME CHIEF JUSTICE I MADE IT A PRIORITY TO TRAVEL THE STATE AND LISTEN TO CITIZENíS CONCERNS ABOUT THE COURTS. I TAKE SERIOUSLY MY ROLE AS THE SPOKESPERSON FOR THE COURTS AND I CONTINUE TO MAKE A SERIOUS EFFORT TO RELAY THE PROGRESS WE MAKE IN OUR COURTS TO THE PUBLIC. I BELIEVE MY DUTY AS CHIEF JUSTICE IS TO RESTORE THE PUBLIC CONFIDENCE IN OUR COURTS AND TO SEE TO IT THAT THE PUBLIC CONFIDENCE IS JUSTIFIED BY EFFICIENT COURTS AND COURTS THAT WORK BETTER FOR ALL NORTH CAROLINIANS.

OUR COURTS ARE CURRENTLY FUNCTIONING AS WELL CAN BE EXPECTED GIVEN OUR LACK OF RESOURCES. ALTHOUGH WE HAVE HAD SUCCESSES, I CANNOT LET THE SUCCESSES HIDE THE REALITY OF OUR SHORTCOMINGS. LAST DECEMBER THE COMMISSION FOR THE FUTURE OF JUSTICE AND THE COURTS IN NORTH CAROLINA, CHAIRED BY JOHN MEDLIN, FORMER CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER AND PRESENT CHAIRMAN OF THE BOARD OF THE WACHOVIA CORPORATION, RELEASED ITS REPORT ENTITLED "WITHOUT FAVOR, DENIAL OR DELAY -- A COURT SYSTEM FOR THE 21st CENTURY." I COMMEND THE COMMISSION FOR THE TWO YEARS OF DEDICATED STUDY IT GAVE THE COURTS. IT MAKES DETAILED RECOMMENDATIONS FOR RESTRUCTURING OUR ENTIRE COURT SYSTEM TO MEET THE CHALLENGES OF THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY. IT IS VERY THOUGHT-PROVOKING AND WORTHY OF OUR MOST SERIOUS CONSIDERATION.

IN PARTICULAR, I THINK THE SECTION ON TECHNOLOGY DEMONSTRATES THAT OUR COURTS ARE AT LEAST FIFTEEN YEARS BEHIND WHERE THEY SHOULD BE IN COMPUTERIZATION, AND IT SPELLS OUT WITH COMPLETE ACCURACY WHAT MUST BE DONE TO BRING US INTO THE MODERN WORLD. DURING THIS LAST LEGISLATIVE SESSION WE WERE ABLE TO SECURE A $4.3 MILLION RESERVE FOR TECHNOLOGY FOR NEW AUTOMATED SYSTEM AND EXPANSION OF EXISTING SYSTEMS, AND SUPPORT PERSONNEL. IN ADDITION, WE HAVE ANOTHER $3.6 million for REPLACING OUR equipment. THIS IS A TREMENDOUS START FOR THE COURTS BUT WE ARE GOING TO NEED ADDITIONAL RESOURCES ON A CONTINUING BASIS IN ORDER TO FULLY AUTOMATE OUR COURTHOUSES ACROSS THE STATE. WE NEED THE PREDICTABILITY OF FUNDING IN ORDER TO PLAN WISELY FOR THE FUTURE. WHILE OUR OVERALL BUDGET ALLOCATION THIS TIME INCREASED TO approximately $327 million WITH approximately $20 million in new money. THIS STILL AMOUNTS TO LESS THAN 3% OF THE STATEíS GENERAL FUND.

ONE OF THE MOST DRAMATIC REVELATIONS IN THE COMMISSION'S REPORT WAS THE EXTENT TO WHICH THE LEGISLATIVE BRANCH OF GOVERNMENT IN NORTH CAROLINA HAS ENCROACHED UPON THE TRADITIONAL AUTHORITY OF THE JUDICIAL BRANCH. SINCE THE 1 960'S, WE HAVE HEARD A CONSTANT REFRAIN AT BOTH THE NATIONAL AND STATE LEVELS TO THE EFFECT THAT THE COURTS HAVE BEEN INVADING THE PROVINCE OF THE LEGISLATURE BY CREATING LAW. BUT THE COMMISSION'S REPORT MAKES IT ABSOLUTELY CLEAR THAT THE LEGISLATURE HAS TAKEN CONTROL OF MANY OF THE MOST BASIC FUNCTIONS OF THE JUDICIAL BRANCH. IN FACT, THIS PHENOMENON IS SO WELL ESTABLISHED THAT IT HAS COME TO BE VIEWED AS NORMAL PROCEDURE BY SOME.

IT IS THE LEGISLATURE WHICH HAS DETERMINED THE SIZE OF EACH OF OUR JUDICIAL AND PROSECUTORIAL DISTRICTS. THE LEGISLATURE HAS CREATED THE VERY RULES OF CIVIL PROCEDURE AND THE RULES OF CRIMINAL PROCEDURE, EVEN THOUGH LEGISLATORS OFTEN BLAME THE COURTS WHEN THE RESULTS ARE PREDICTABLY SILLY. THE LEGISLATURE EVEN WRITES THE RULES OF EVIDENCE TO BE APPLIED BY OUR JUDGES, A MATTER WHICH HAS ALWAYS BEEN VIEWED AS UNIQUELY THE PROVINCE OF THE COURTS IN COMMON LAW JURISDICTIONS. IN MANY STATES AND IN MOST ENGLISH SPEAKING COUNTRIES, ALL OF THESE MATTERS ARE CONTROLLED BY THE COURTS THEMSELVES.

THE FUTURES COMMISSION HAS RECOMMENDED THAT ALL SUCH FUNCTIONS BY RETURNED TO THE COURTS. MANY OF THE MEMBERS OF THE COMMISSION ARE RECOGNIZED LEADERS IN THE PRIVATE SECTOR. THEY REACHED THE RATHER OBVIOUS CONCLUSION THAT LAWYERS AND JUDGES COULD NOT FAIRLY BE HELD RESPONSIBLE FOR THE FAILURES OF THE COURTS IN NORTH CAROLINA, SINCE THEY DO NOT HAVE CONTROL OF THOSE COURTS.

TAKING A BUSINESS APPROACH, THE COMMISSION RECOMMENDED THAT THE JUDICIAL BRANCH BE GIVEN CONTROL OF THE RULES OF EVIDENCE AND THE RULES OF PROCEDURE AS WELL AS THE SHAPE AND SIZE OF THE JUDICIAL DISTRICTS. IN SHORT, THE COMMISSION RECOMMENDED THAT AUTHORITY AND ACCOUNTABILITY BE PLACED IN ONE INSTITUTION -- THE COURTS. I FIND IT DIFFICULT TO SEE HOW ANYONE COULD ARGUE WITH THAT SIMPLE PROPOSITION. I WILL RESIST EFFORT TO BLAME COURT PERSONNEL ANY LONGER FOR A SYSTEM OVER WHICH THEY HAVE LITTLE OR NO CONTROL. I BELIEVE THE FUTURES COMMISSION'S REPORT WILL BE A VALUABLE ASSET IN THIS REGARD.

THE FUTURES COMMISSION ACCEPTED AND PERFORMED THE TASK OF OUTLINING THE NEEDS OF THE COURTS IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY. I BELIEVE IN THE COMING MONTHS SPEAKER BRUBAKER AND PRESIDENT PRO TEM BASNIGHT WILL NAME INDIVIDUALS TO SERVE ON A LEGISLATIVE COMMISSION WITH THE TASK OF PRIORITIZING AND FUNDING SOME OF THE RECOMMENDATIONS. MY FIRST DUTY, HOWEVER, IS TO CONTINUE TO DEAL WITH THE SEVERE IMMEDIATE NEEDS OF OUR COURTS. PLEASE BEAR IN MIND THAT THE ONLY DUTY PLACED UPON THE JUDICIAL BRANCH OF GOVERNMENT BY OUR CONSTITUTION IS THE DISPOSITION OF CIVIL AND CRIMINAL CASES IN OUR COURTS.

DURING FISCAL YEAR 1995-96 WE DISPOSED OF MORE TOTAL CASES (2,599,861) THAN IN ANY OTHER YEAR IN THE HISTORY OF NORTH CAROLINA'S COURTS. BUT IN THAT SAME FISCAL YEAR, WE HAD EVEN MORE NEW CASE FILINGS (2,716,758) THAN EVER BEFORE. I MUST CONTINUE MY EFFORTS TO CONVINCE THE LEGISLATURE THAT THE COURTS NEED MORE PERSONNEL. NORTH CAROLINA RANKS NEXT TO LAST IN THE NUMBER OF JUDGES PER CAPITA. BUT WE ALSO RANK IN THE TOP THREE IN THE NATION IN TERMS OF JUDGE PRODUCTIVITY. WE SIMPLY MUST HAVE MORE COURT PERSONNEL TO EFFICIENTLY DISPOSE OF THE INCREASING CASELOAD. JUST THIS PAST WEEK, THREE SESSIONS OF SUPERIOR COURT WERE CANCELLED BECAUSE WE DID NOT HAVE ENOUGH COURT REPORTERS. I WILL CONTINUE TO INFORM THE LEGISLATURE OF OUR SHORT-TERM NEEDS IN THE AREA OF TECHNOLOGY AND PERSONNEL. AND I WILL CONTINUE TO REMIND EVERYONE THAT OUR FUNDAMENTAL OR CORE CONSTITUTIONAL DUTY IS AND MUST BE OUR FIRST CONCERN, DESPITE THE FACT THAT THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY HAS, FOR BETTER OR WORSE, ASSIGNED MANY OTHER DUTIES TO THE JUDICIAL BRANCH

the FUTURES COMMISSION REPORT ALSO ENDORSES A FORM OF MERIT SELECTION OF JUDGES. WHILE THERE CONTINUES TO BE DEBATE AS TO THE FAIREST AND PREFERRED MEANS OF ACHIEVING THE GOAL, I CONTINUE TO SUPPORT THE CONCEPT. OUR JUDGES ARE CHARGED WITH DIFFICULT ROLES WHICH REQUIRE NEUTRALITY, SKILL, AND COMMITMENT. THE JUDGES IN THIS STATE ARE HARD-WORKING AND DEDICATED TO THE ADMINISTRATION OF JUSTICE. MOST HAVE UNDERTAKEN THEIR POSITION AS THEIR LIFEíS CALLING. MERIT SELECTION WOULD ENSURE THAT THE BEST, BRIGHTEST, AND MOST QUALIFIED INDIVIDUALS SERVE THIS ROLE. AND THAT THE JUDICIARY OF THIS STATE CONTINUES TO RISE ABOVE PETTY POLITICAL BICKERING. IT IS MY OPINION THAT MERIT SELECTION IS IN THE BEST INTEREST OF OUR CITIZENS.

IN CLOSING, OUR COURTS HAVE HARD-WORKING INDIVIDUALS WHO ARE OPERATING AS EFFICIENTLY AS POSSIBLE WITH THE LIMITED RESOURCES THEY NOW POSSESS. WE WILL CONTINUE TO REQUEST ADDITIONAL RESOURCES TO MEET OUR CONSTITUTIONAL DUTY. I WILL CONTINUE TO TALK TO INFORMED CITIZENS LIKE YOU AND TELL YOU HOW WE ARE DOING AND ALSO WHAT WE NEED TO DO BETTER. I ASK YOU TO HELP US. ROTARIANS ARE COMMITED TO COMMUNITY SERVICE. WE NEED THE SUPPORT OF CITIZENS LIKE YOU TO IMPROVE OUR PUBLIC PERCEPTION AND TO INFORM OUR LEGISLATURE THAT OUR CITIZENS DESERVE COURTS THAT HAVE THE RESOURCES TO FUNCTION. I APPRECIATE YOUR ATTENTION TODAY. AND I WILL BE HAPPY TO ANSWER ANY QUESTIONS.