Today, Chief Justice Mark Martin delivered his annual State of the Judiciary address at the North Carolina Bar Association annual meeting.  The impassioned address focused on the Chief’s view of what makes our American legal system “the gold standard” for the world:  adherence to the rule of law, respect for the roles of judges and lawyers in our adversarial system, tradition of respect for the constitution and the rights and responsibilities that define us as Americans, and, most importantly, respect for the fairness, impartiality, and the independence of our courts.

Chief Justice Martin touted some of the successes of the North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice, which completed its report last year.  In particular, the Chief focused on North Carolina’s having raised the age for prosecution of teenagers as adults.  The Chief also highlighted the significant pro bono efforts within the bench and bar, including the 345 lawyers who donated 50 or more hours of pro bono services in 2017, in accord with Rule 6.1 of the Rules of Professional Conduct; the creation of the Pro Bono Resource Center to help “close this access to justice gap”; and service efforts by the state’s law schools:

The Chief also announced the creation of “School Justice Partnerships” between the Administrative Office of the Courts, the district courts, and other stakeholders to help reduce the pipeline of students entering the judicial system. The Chief hopes this initiative will cut the dropout rate and help schools take care of “minor matters at the schoolhouse” instead of handling them within the criminal justice system.  The Chief also encouraged the bar to work towards solutions to the ongoing opioid crisis and the rise of human trafficking in our state.

The Chief touched on several economic issues as well, including the allocation of $551 million to the judiciary—the largest allocation ever—for the upcoming fiscal year; the raises of 2% given to AOC employees, and the state’s leadership in now providing a living wage to state employees, with such workers earning a minimum of $31,200 annually.

In a light moment, the Chief celebrated the Supreme Court’s 200th anniversary celebrations, including sittings in Morganton, Hendersonville, and Asheville during last term, and upcoming sittings in Halifax County, Craven County, and Pitt County in the upcoming terms, to “reconnect the Supreme Court to the people that we serve.”

The Chief did not devote significant time to discussing recent tensions between the judiciary and the legislative branches. The Chief did note that the judiciary would continue to disagree in good faith from time to time with the General Assembly, specifically highlighting the judiciary’s unwavering commitment to impartiality and ensuring “that our judges have judicial independence.”

The Chief did not specifically address Senate Bill 814, introduced Wednesday, which would change the way that judicial vacancies are filled.  S.B. 814 calls for an amendment to the North Carolina Constitution to introduce a form of legislative merit selection for such openings.  When a seat became open, the citizens of North Carolina would nominate candidates.  The slate of nominees would be reviewed by a non-partisan board, which would provide assessments of the nominees’ qualifications.  Then, the General Assembly would distill that list to 2 or more candidates for presentation to the Governor.  The Governor could then fill the vacancy from among those on that short list.

–Matt Leerberg