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Republicans in the General Assembly will almost certainly override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of new abortion restrictions on Tuesday evening. The next high-stakes showdown: budget negotiations between the state House and Senate, which will include debates over pay raises for state employees and teachers and a vast expansion of private-school vouchers.
The budget Senate leaders released on Monday afternoon also proposes several technical but nonetheless major changes for the state’s courts and criminal justice system that will draw less attention. Among other things, the budget stacks the deck against future constitutional challenges to laws and legislative districts, and makes it harder for an appeal to reach the N.C. Supreme Court.
Here are six provisions that caught our eye in the nearly 400-page budget proposal, and where you can find them.
The NCGA’s “Special” Judges (p. 284-286): Under this proposal, the General Assembly will appoint 10 new special superior court judges to eight-year terms. Unlike regular superior court judges, “special” judges aren’t elected; the existing ones were appointed by the governor. They have the authority of a resident superior court judge, but aren’t required to live in a specific judicial district.
The 10 new legislature-appointed judges would have to be drawn equally from the state’s five judicial divisions. And if any of them die or are removed from office, legislative leaders would choose their replacement, though the governor fills other judicial vacancies.
The vision becomes apparent later in the budget proposal. Lawsuits challenging gerrymanders or the constitutionality of state laws are routed to a three-judge panel in Wake County. Currently, state law requires one of those three judges to be Wake County’s senior resident superior court judge or their designee; the other two must live elsewhere in the state and are selected by the N.C. Supreme Court’s chief justice from a pool the state Conference of Superior Court Judges recommends.
The Senate bill removes Wake County’s senior judge—currently Paul Ridgeway, a Democrat—and the Conference of Superior Court Judges from the equation, and eliminates the requirement that the judges live in different parts of the state. Instead, the chief justice—currently Paul Newby, a Republican—will select all three judges, with few limitations.
The budget expressly includes special superior court judges among Newby’s possible appointments.
Eliminate Automatic Appeals (p. 288): Earlier this year, Democratic Justice Anita Earls said her Republican colleagues wanted to do away with a law that requires the state Supreme Court to hear cases following split decisions in the Court of Appeals. The Senate budget does just that. The state Supreme Court would only have to take up cases involving “a substantial question arising under the Constitution of the United States or of this State.”
Change the Judicial Standards Commission (p. 285): The budget cuts lawyers out of the 14-member Judicial Standards Commission, which hears complaints about judges. Right now, the state bar council selects four experienced attorneys for the commission, along with the chief justice’s six appointments; the governor and House and Senate leaders also appoint two laypeople each. Under the new arrangement, the General Assembly will take the state bar’s appointments; instead of lawyers, the House and Senate leaders will appoint district and superior court judges. By statute, bar members can’t be included among the lay appointments, either. In other words, the commission will comprise only judges and laypeople—no attorneys.
IT for AOC (p. 300): As we’ve previously reported, the Administrative Office of the Courts’ rollout of the $100 million eCourts records system has not gone especially well. (We’ll have more on this next week.) The budget gives the AOC more than $7 million over two years to hire 34 information technology staff to work on the project. AOC deputy director Joseph Kyzer says the positions aren’t new. They were created in 2021, and the Senate wants to fund them for another two years.
“These existing positions are important to the pilot project’s successes so far,” Kyzer told The Assembly.
More Public Defenders (p. 302-03): The budget creates six new public defenders’ offices, including in Alamance and Johnston counties, as well as rural areas in the mountains, sandhills, and the southeast. At the same time, it freezes the pay rates of court-appointed lawyers in counties without public defenders for the next two years.
Defense attorneys have long complained about the low rates the Indigent Defense Services Commission pays. Capital murder cases only pay $100 an hour; lesser felonies and misdemeanors pay as little as $65 an hour.
Easier Medical Release (p. 359): This provision makes it somewhat easier for elderly, infirm inmates to be released from state prisons. State law restricts medical release to those who are terminally ill, “permanently and totally” disabled, or “geriatric,” meaning they’re over age 65 and have been incapacitated by an age-related condition. This budget reduces the age limit for geriatric prisoners to 55; it also tweaks a requirement that their condition must render them no risk to public safety to “no risk or low risk.”
Another item allows some inmates to get a raise for their labor. Currently, inmates can earn only $1 per day working for Correction Enterprises. The Senate budget grants inmates working for the BRIDGE program, in which young, nonviolent offenders fight fires and conserve forests in the mountains, and inmates whose work requires “special skills or training” to earn up to $5 per day.
Correction: The item on Administrative Office of the Courts funding incorrectly stated that the 34 IT positions included in the Senate’s budget were new. They were created in 2021, and the Senate’s budget would fund them for another two years.
Jeffrey Billman reports on politics and the law for The Assembly. He is the former editor-in-chief of INDY Week in Durham. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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