John Hood: NC courts must enter modern age

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 22, 2017

RALEIGH — Do you keep up with your friends and family by typing personal letters and dropping them in the mailbox? Do you do all your shopping at the mall? When traveling, do you use a pay phone to get directions or to call a taxi?

Unless you are a stubborn iconoclast trying to make a statement — in which case, huzzah to you! — these questions answer themselves. I pose them merely to get you thinking about how much technology has changed daily life in a short period of time.

Now, consider how North Carolina operates its courts. Paper documents still play a dominant role in filing, tracking, and adjudicating cases. To conduct just everyday transactions, interested parties must often journey to a physical courthouse with which they may be unfamiliar, and then try to figure out where to go, whom to see, and even where to park.

The mismatch between modern technology and traditional courthouses extends far beyond questions of speed and convenience. Services once performed almost exclusively by licensed local attorneys charging hourly fees are now available at flat rates in online packages from competing providers — albeit with varying levels of quality and relevance to specific client needs.

At the same time newly minted lawyers are having a harder time finding jobs than previous generations did, more and more North Carolinians are choosing to represent themselves in court, either because they can’t afford an attorney or because they don’t think the assistance they would get from paid counsel would be worth the price.

Rather than assuming these trends are temporary, or trying to make them go away through a combination of wishful thinking and heavy-handed regulation, many of the state’s judges, lawmakers, attorneys, and community leaders have come up with a reasonable plan of action.

In 2015, Chief Justice Mark Martin created the North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice. Its 65 voting commissioners and other participants collectively attended 62 meetings, heard from hundreds of speakers, and devoted 4,200 hours of volunteer service to producing a report addressing issues of civil justice, criminal investigation and adjudication, legal professionalism, technology, and public trust and confidence in the courts.

I was one of the non-lawyer commissioners, and devoted most of my time to public perceptions of the problem. Surveys devised by our committee found, for example, that only a quarter of North Carolinians believed cases are resolved in a timely manner. Nearly three-quarters believed that average citizens can’t afford to bring a case to court in the first place.

Many of the Martin commission’s recommendations can be implemented largely or entirely by the court system itself, such as changing the way cases are assigned and managed (to speed up and improve the resolution of disputes) and creating a statewide call center to assist self-represented litigants (to help them navigate the system while keeping judges and clerks from feeling the need to provide time-consuming, inconsistent, and sometimes-inappropriate assistance).

But other pieces will require significant legislative action. Given recent debates about judicial elections and the separation of powers, many politicos immediately zeroed in on the Martin commission’s recommendation that North Carolina reconsider its means of selecting judges. This recommendation was purposefully non-specific, however, because it’s complicated and because commissioners didn’t want it to overshadow reforms that are immediately actionable and less controversial.

For example, the commission proposes an e-Courts Strategic Technology Plan to bring our system into the 21st century with new hardware, software, and other technology upgrades. It calls for $15 million in capital and operating expenditures next year, and as much as $91 million over six years.

In the context of an annual General Fund budget of $22 billion, this plan is affordable and reflects the highest priorities of any government: public safety and the protection of individual rights. Legal practice and public expectations are changing in response to new technologies, like it or not. North Carolina can either adjust its court system to that reality, or pay a far heavier price in the future.

John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on the talk show “NC SPIN.” You can follow him @JohnHoodNC.