This week in disappointment: More fallout on marriage bill; judicial system handcuffed by budget | North Carolina | Indy Week

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This week in disappointment: More fallout on marriage bill; judicial system handcuffed by budget

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Ideology met real life at a House Judiciary committee public hearing, where representatives from the state's Registers of Deeds offices told lawmakers that Senate Bill 2 would cause a host of staffing and administrative problems.

Guilford County Register of Deeds Jeff Thigpen said he is concerned that the bill, which allows magistrates with "sincerely held religious beliefs" to recuse themselves from performing same-sex marriages, will interfere with his daily operations.

Thigpen oversees 25 full-time staffers—down from 33 since the recession—and says his office issued 3,600 marriage licenses in the past year—265 of those to same-sex couples. His office also provided thousands of copies of marriage and birth certificates and documented thousands of real estate transactions.

Thigpen also took issue with the lack of definition of a "sincerely held religious objection" in the legislation: "The bill doesn't give local elected officials any flexibility to determine with their county attorneys whether there are significant practical burdens that may happen, and/or whether the religious objection is clear."

Thigpen said that in the cases of recusals, he would have to approach his county commissioners to ask for additional staff. "If they approved it, can I then ask (the applicant, in an interview) whether or not they would religiously recuse themselves.?" Thigpen asked. "I'll be trying to fix a problem that may actually continually be a problem."

The North Carolina Register of Deeds Association does not take an official position on SB2, but its chairman, Wayne Rash of Caldwell County said the group has "some very serious concerns about the implementation of the bill, especially for the smaller counties."

A survey of the Register of Deeds offices shows 42 of the state's 100 counties have three or fewer employees; of those, 23 counties have only two employees and eight counties only have one employee, besides the elected Register of Deeds.

"Our concern with the passage of this bill is, how would that work for the smaller counties," Rash said. "If there are only one or two employees in an office, the chances are much greater that they might opt out."

That would place substantial burden on the Register of Deeds who would have to be at the office "52 weeks a year, Monday through Friday, all day," he said. —Jane Porter

North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin is asking the legislature for an extra $30 million for the state's court system. But if Gov. McCrory's proposed budget is any indication, Martin may get barely half the funding he's requested.

Data from the National Center for State Courts ranked North Carolina 45th in per capita spending on the court system in 2012. In the last 25 years, state spending on the judiciary has never exceeded 3 percent of the state's overall budget. To illustrate, Martin compared the justice system's budget of $464 million for all 100 counties with Wake County schools' 2014–2015 fiscal year budget of nearly $1.5 billion; the state spends less than one third on the entire judicial branch than one county does on its school system for one year.

In the next few years, North Carolina needs to invest in technology infrastructure, give employees modest raises, move trial courts to an electronic filing system and expedite lab testing, DNA analysis and trials.

Martin made his remarks at a "State of the Judiciary" speech, the first to the General Assembly since Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake's in 2001. While the judicial branch saved money by eliminating positions, rejiggering operations and using specialized military veteran and family courts, its budget is "under tremendous stress." Courts are understaffed, resulting in delays, Martin said.

"Delays erode public trust and confidence in the integrity of the justice system," Martin said. "We all know that justice delayed is justice that has been denied. We are now confronting a situation where the justice system is unable to properly serve those who turn to us for help."

"(Martin) has made a good first step by addressing the critical funding shortfalls facing our courts," said first-term Rep. Gale Adcock (D-Wake) in a statement this week. "However I believe it will take the state Legislature to commit to a multi-year plan to fully fund our courts."

Republicans, too, have signaled they are open to Martin's request for more money for the courts. But Gov. McCrory's budget proposal, unveiled last week, doesn't look promising.

The $21.5 billion budget would boost judicial branch operations by only $6 million. It would allocate another $10 million to the courts in 2016–2017 for costs associated with indigent defense, jurors, witnesses, interpreters, expert witnesses for prosecutors, equipment maintenance, hardware and software. But it's still a little more than half of the $30 million Martin asked for.

"The justice system is in many ways a complex chain and we all know that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link," Martin said. "The entire system must work correctly from start to finish and this requires adequate resources. Think about what it will mean if the people of this great state cannot rely upon us to promptly administer justice."

This article appeared in print with the headline "No justice, no peace."

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