The Administrative Office of the Courts took issue with our statement that the eCourts rollout “has not gone especially well.”
“The opposite is true,” AOC deputy director Joseph Kryzer told The Assembly in an email. He pointed out that the $100 million cloud-based record-keeping system has processed more than 130,000 filings since it launched on February 13.
Kryzer admitted the new system has faced “challenges.” As The Assembly previously reported, attorneys in the four pilot counties have complained that eCourts has bogged down courtrooms, overwhelmed clerks, created errors, and exacerbated technological inequities.
Reives declined an interview request but said in a statement that the AOC “provided information and updates on how they are addressing the concerns shared by many North Carolinians. They are taking steps to rectify the issues and are committed to staying in touch during those efforts.”
Kryzer directed The Assembly to a recent article in the State Bar Journal in which Marcia Armstrong, the president of the State Bar Association, praised the court clerks implementing eCourts and urged attorneys to “have faith” that their “concerns and doubts” will be alleviated.
“Despite challenges present in every major transition, this project is on a successful path with a promising future,” he said.
A class-action lawsuit filed today in federal court begs to differ.
The complaint, which names Texas-based Tyler Technologies and the sheriffs of Wake and Lee counties as defendants, alleges that “the eCourts launch has caused people to spend days or weeks longer than necessary in jail. Others have been arrested multiple times on the same warrant—even after their charges have been dismissed by a judge.”
Tyler’s record in other communities made these problems foreseeable, the lawsuit continues. “Over the last decade, similar software implementations by [Tyler Technologies] led to well-documented cases of overdetention, wrongful arrest, and the like. Defendants were aware that the same thing could happen here. But they forged ahead without any failsafe or alternative in place.”
Civil rights attorneys at Tin Fulton in Durham—including Abraham Rubert-Schewel, who represented men falsely arrested for heroin trafficking by Raleigh Det. Omar Abdullah—brought the lawsuit on behalf of two plaintiffs. The first, Timia Chaplin, says an eCourts glitch caused her to be rearrested in Wake County on charges that had been dismissed nearly a month earlier. The second, Paulino Castellanos, alleges that Lee County’s transition to eCourts prevented his release from jail for two weeks.
In addition to seeking monetary damages from Tyler Technologies, the complaint asks the court to bar the sheriffs in Lee and Wake counties from using eCourts. The attorneys also said they expect the number of eligible plaintiffs to swell to “at least hundreds of individuals.”
In an email, AOC communications director Graham Wilson said that because the office isn’t named as a defendant, he wouldn’t comment on the lawsuit.
But he added that the AOC “has consistently solicited court officials, attorneys, and the public to report any issues like those alleged in the complaint. We have investigated each report we have received and have not substantiated that any allegation of wrongful arrest or incarceration was caused by [eCourts].”
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Speaking of eCourts …
The Assembly’s efforts to learn more about how and why the office selected Tyler Technologies to create eCourts have hit a brick wall. In response to numerous public records requests, the AOC has refused to release six competing bids for the project or the minutes of the committee meetings in which vendors were evaluated.
The AOC says the evaluation committee didn’t record meeting minutes, even though state law requires all public bodies to do so.
The AOC told The Assembly that the committee needed only to provide a “general account” of its meetings “so that a person not in attendance would have a reasonable understanding of what transpired.” The office says the recommendation letter the committee sent to the AOC’s former director in December 2018, and which it provided to The Assembly, “more than meets that standard.”
The standard appears to come from a law governing closed sessions, in which public bodies—defined as “any elected or appointed authority, board, commission, committee, council, or other body of the State … that is composed of two or more members and exercises or is authorized to exercise a legislative, policy-making, quasi-judicial, administrative, or advisory function”—privately discuss sensitive contractual, personnel, or legal issues.
But state law says public bodies “may hold a closed session only upon a motion duly made and adopted at an open meeting,” and open meetings must have recorded minutes.
It’s possible the AOC does not consider the evaluation committee a public body—and thus does not believe that public records and open meetings laws apply—though the office declined to directly answer that question.
But Brooks Fuller, director of the N.C. Open Government Coalition at Elon University, said the committee likely meets the criteria to be a public body.
Fuller added that the AOC’s justification for withholding the competing bids is weak.
The AOC told The Assembly that the bids “are confidential at all stages between bid opening and contract award in a matter that materially deviates from most applications of the public records and open meetings laws.”
But now that Tyler’s contract has been awarded, the other bids should be considered public records, Fuller said.
The AOC declined to provide further justification for withholding the records.
A couple of corrections for last week’s email: Our report on the Senate’s budget proposal said the proposed new special superior court judges would have the powers of “senior” resident superior court judges; they will not have senior status. We also said they’d be drawn equally from the state’s five judicial “districts”; we meant “divisions.”
More consequentially, we reported that the budget funded 34 new IT positions at the Administrative Office of the Courts to help with eCourts. The AOC says those positions were created in 2021, and the Senate funding would renew them for another two years.
On Our Radar
The 2024 N.C. Supreme Court election
Last Thursday, Justice Michael Morgan announced that he will not seek reelection to the North Carolina Supreme Court. Elected in 2016, the former Wake County Superior Court judge is one of only two Democrats—and two people of color—on the seven-person bench.
To reclaim a court majority, Democrats will have to win every Supreme Court election through 2028. On paper, losing an incumbent would appear to put Democrats deeper in a hole. But voters rarely decide judicial elections based on the candidates’ qualifications. They often know little about the people running and instead vote based on party affiliations.
“With the judicial races, there’s almost no deviation from race to race,” Tom Jensen, director of the Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning firm, told The Assembly last year. “Either the Democrats win everything or the Republicans win everything.”
Morgan was the last justice elected in a nonpartisan race, in 2016. His victory over a Republican incumbent—perhaps a fluke driven by his position on the ballot—led the Republican General Assembly to make Supreme Court races partisan, which critics say has eroded public confidence in the body. In recent years, Morgan was among the two justices most willing to break party lines. The other, Democrat Sam Ervin IV, lost his reelection bid last November. (The Republican justices have almost always voted in unison.)
Republican Court of Appeals Judge Jefferson Griffin—a white graduate of the historically Black N.C. Central University School of Law who in 2021 denied the existence of institutional racism—has already said he is running for the Supreme Court in 2024.
No Democrats have announced yet, although former Court of Appeals Judge Lucy Inman, who lost her campaign for Supreme Court last year, and recently appointed Court of Appeals Judge Allison Riggs, a former voting rights attorney at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, are thought to be possible candidates.
Culpepper v. Office of Administrative Hearings
Soon after becoming chief justice in 2021, Paul Newby appointed Donald van der Vaart, the controversial leader of the Department of Environmental Quality under Gov. Pat McCrory, head of the Office of Administrative Hearings, which oversees the state’s rulemaking procedures. Van der Vaart removed the OAH’s longtime general counsel, a former Democratic state representative, after the General Assembly allowed him to remove some employees’ civil service protections in a late amendment to the state budget.
Bill Culpepper, former Speaker Jim Black’s top lieutenant, contested his termination, alleging that he’d improperly lost civil service protections and been subjected to political discrimination. An OAH-appointed judge dismissed Culpepper’s discrimination claim in December 2022 while ruling that he was nonetheless entitled to reinstatement and back pay as a career employee.
On May 17, Culpepper appealed, asking the Court of Appeals to declare that he’d been targeted. His brief alleged that though van der Vaart feigned surprise at the budget provision, it emerged after the OAH director’s meeting with Senate leader Phil Berger’s policy adviser. That meeting, the brief said, was arranged by Berger’s daughter, an OAH official.
It is “totally illogical” to believe that the General Assembly gave van der Vaart powers that had “never before been granted … totally on its own without any input or request whatsoever from Director van der Vaart,” the brief charged.
Van der Vaart removed the civil service protections of three other employees—including Berger’s daughter—but they have not been terminated. Culpepper said the OAH director made clear that he was the legislation’s target.
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