- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 4, 2015

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - North Carolina’s judicial system has done its best with less since the Great Recession, but now it’s time legislators provide more resources and improved personnel pay within the state’s courthouses, Chief Justice Mark Martin told legislators Wednesday.

Martin, in giving his “State of the Judiciary” address to a joint session of the General Assembly, said the court system has been making financial and efficiency improvements through the use of video technology and specialized courts for military veterans and for family disputes.

But the operations budget of the judicial branch of government faces tremendous stress that threatens basic functions of the courts if left unchecked, said Martin, a member of the Supreme Court since 1999. Martin said earlier this year that funds for operating the courts - separate from personnel costs - have fallen more than 40 percent since 2008.

The chief justice’s plea came a day before Gov. Pat McCrory is scheduled to release his two-year budget proposal, which historically includes requests from the judicial branch.

“If we cannot pay for these basic services, we cannot conduct timely trials,” he told an audience that included McCrory and court officials. “The resulting delays erode public trust and confidence in the integrity of the justice system, because they impair our ability to promptly apprehend offenders and see that they are tried and appropriately sentenced.”

Martin said the state justice system’s budget of $464 million represents 3 percent of the entire state budget. Per-capita spending for the judicial budget ranked 45th among the states in 2012, according to Martin, citing the National Center for State Courts. Using the center’s standards, the judicial branch of more than 6,000 employees is understaffed by 536 positions, he said.

“It is clear that we are asking our justice system employees to do more with less,” said Martin, being quick not to lay blame on any particular session of the General Assembly for funding challenges.

Money from vacant positions has been going to cover shortfalls to pay for jurors, court reporters and expert witnesses, the chief justice said, while delays in blood testing to calculate alcohol levels and identify DNA have delayed court cases.

The legislature, however, must “ensure that we adequately fund the basic operations of the court system, provide modest pay increases for our personnel and move forward with critical technology infrastructure to support the rapidly increasing demands on our county courthouses across the state,” Martin said.

Martin didn’t give lawmakers a specific funding number. In a January interview with The Associated Press, Martin said he hoped the legislature would provide $15 million for operating funds and $15 million for salary increases. Funding also could be needed down the line for electronic court filings for all 100 counties.

The chief justice also said he would convene a panel this spring that will evaluate and hopefully be able to provide recommendations for improving the justice system for the 2017 legislative session.

Martin was appointed six months ago to succeed the retiring Chief Justice Sarah Parker. He was elected to a full eight-year term in November. He is the first chief justice to deliver a State of the Judiciary speech since then-Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake Jr. did so in 2001.

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