Conference of Superior Court Judges Meets in Wilmington
News imageTort reform and scarce legal representation for the poor were among issues addressed at the annual summer conference of North Carolina's superior court judges, held in late June at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

Approximately 135 superior court judges, as well as several judges from the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court of North Carolina, participated in seminars regarding developments in appellate law, legislation affecting the judicial system, and other issues emerging in courtrooms across the state. Conference participants attended a reception in honor of the judiciary hosted by the North Carolina Bar Association at the organization's annual meeting, also in Wilmington.

Superior court judges preside over criminal trials, and civil trials including proceedings arising from negligence claims, commercial disputes, appeals from administrative agency decisions, and constitutional challenges.

Chief Justice Sarah Parker (pictured above) urged judges to keep in mind in their courtrooms the unmet legal needs of North Carolina's poorest citizens. Speaking as a special guest of the conference, the chief justice described the mission of the North Carolina Equal Access to Justice Commission, of which she is the chair.

Approximately 35 percent of North Carolina's population more than three million people qualifies for legal aid assistance in civil court proceedings ranging from child custody to employment and health benefits disputes. As a result of increased need for legal aid and shrinking funds for legal aid organizations, attorneys can only represent two of every 10 people seeking assistance. Chief Justice Parker reported that currently the ratio of legal aid attorneys to low income residents is about one to 19,000.

Judge John W. Smith, director of the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts (NCAOC), updated judges on administrative strategies to cope with the loss of personnel and other consequences of sustained budget cuts by the General Assembly. Judge Smith credited the work of NCAOC staff, and in particular former NCAOC Senior Deputy Director Gregg Stahl, for continuing efforts to secure and manage funding for the state court system.

Although most people meet judges in the courtroom, no judge at the summer conference wears a black robe. Instead, judges are back in the classroom, learning about developments in the law from colleagues and from faculty of the North Carolina School of Government.

Members of the Pattern Jury Committee unveiled changes to jury instructions that are necessary to apply in court changes to tort law enacted by the General Assembly. Judge Shannon Joseph presented comprehensive pattern instructions for medical malpractice and other civil tort claims. Judge Beverly Beal explained revised pattern instructions to reflect changes in the state's "lemon law" for defectively manufactured automobiles. Judge Richard Doughton presented revised pattern instructions in murder cases involving the claim of self-defense. The pattern jury instructions are necessary so juries in all parts of the state can apply the law consistently in all civil and criminal trials. The additions and modifications to the instructions are the product of months of study and discussion among committee members each year. The chairman of the committee is Judge Robert Hobgood. Retired Judge Thomas Seay was also recognized at the meeting for his leadership in the past.

North Carolina School of Government Professors Jessica Smith, Jamie Markham, Ann Anderson, and Jeff Welty presented detailed information and analysis and led discussions regarding various topics of concern for judges in criminal and civil proceedings.

Judges continued to discuss changes in sentencing law included in the 2011 Justice Reinvestment Act. W. David Guice, director of the Community Corrections section of the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, outlined changes in operations for probation officers and the addition of "smart phones" that enable officers to locate and supervise offenders more efficiently.

Special guests at the conference, in addition to Chief Justice Parker and Judge Smith, included Supreme Court of North Carolina Justices Robert Edmunds, Paul Newby, and Barbara Jackson; Court of Appeals Judges Sanford Steelman, Robert C. Hunter, Linda McGee, Samuel J. Ervin, Donna Stroud, and Cressie Thigpen; and North Carolina Bar Association President Martin Brinkley. Also in attendance were retired judges who continue to contribute to the state's jurisprudence, including Judge Ralph Walker, former NCAOC director.
Publish Date: 07/13/2012