The Guilford County court system has a desperate need for more judges, is struggling hard to keep up in light of the current judge shortage and just lost some valuable help that it had been getting from the state in the form of temporary judges.
That’s according to Guilford County Chief District Court Judge Tom Jarrell and other county court officials who are feeling the pinch in a big way after state lawmakers sliced the number of “emergency judges” serving North Carolina. Those are temporary, traveling judges – often retired judges – who are sent to court systems where they’re most needed to fill in for a while.
According to Jarrell, judges in Guilford County, on average, handle larger caseloads than any other judges in the state, and the county’s current allocation of 14 District Court judges simply isn’t enough.
Now, with a reduction in the number of emergency judges – which the Guilford County court system has relied on in the past to keep its head above water – the system is really feeling the strain.
In legislation that went into effect last month, state lawmakers cut the number of emergency judges serving in the state from 78 to 25. The change simultaneously toughened the criteria that determines whether a county can be assigned one of those judges.
Jarrell said the emergency judge program, which has cost between $600,000 to $1 million per year in the last five years, wasn’t expensive compared to other state programs, and, he said, considering the immense benefit it provides the courts systems across North Carolina, he doesn’t understand why the program was gutted. He pointed out that the most recent state budget funded Richard Petty’s custom car business expansion and the North Carolina Symphony while cutting the emergency judge program. This year, the state gave $250,000 to Richard Petty’s business and $2.4 million to the NC Symphony.
Jarrell said that, given that Guilford County is always understaffed when it comes to judges, the county is struggling even more than others to keep up now that emergency judges are in very short supply. He said Guilford County’s judges are doing what they can but it’s not enough to keep the court cases flowing like they should.
“The first way we try to keep up is that we have judges covering multiple courts, which means you don’t get a lunch and you certainly don’t get your 15-minute recess, and you work pretty much non-stop all day,” Jarrell said. “I can tell you there are more days than not when I eat a pack of peanut butter crackers and have a Diet Mountain Dew from a vending machine downstairs as my lunch.”
“The second way,” he said, “is we’ve had to cancel some courts and consolidate others. We’ve canceled or consolidated courts in Greensboro and High Point.”
“The third way is that we just have judges coming to work sick,” Jarrell said, adding that judges routinely endure things like head colds and stomach viruses and keep working. “When we cancel these courts, we just get further and further behind. The judges come to court sick and are infecting everyone in the courthouse. I wish they would just stay home – but we don’t have a lot of choice.”
According to Jarrell, in light of Guilford County’s current judge shortage, he and other judges sometimes type up reports at home. He said he often uses Sunday afternoons or Sunday nights to get caught up and, like other judges, he’ll often end up staying late at the courthouse. Jarrell said judges in Guilford County are feeling overwhelmed by the current situation that just got worse with the state’s cut that Jarrell said came as a big surprise to many.
“They slipped this in the budget at the last minute,” he said.
He also said things could have been even worse because there was some discussion among legislators of ending the emergency judge program altogether.
“Nobody seems to be hurting as much as we are,” Jarrell said. “Guilford County is on the top of the needs list in terms of work load.”
He said Guilford County, the state’s 18th Judicial District, has a major need for a permanent new District Court judge. Jarrell said that, given existing caseloads, 14 elected judges isn’t enough.
From July 1, 2016 to June 30, 2017, the 14 District Court judges in Guilford County disposed of an average of 9,811 cases each. Jarrell said the next highest in the state is Wake County, where each judge on average disposed of roughly 8,600 cases.
He also said there are fewer reasons under the new rules for a court system to be provided an emergency judge. Jarrell said courts now will not qualify for an emergency judge if a sitting judge is sick or on vacation, or because a regular judge’s mother died. Now emergency judges are assigned only in situations such as the death or the incapacity of a judge or in a few other very serious situations.
According to Jarrell, just having one extra emergency judge can make a big difference. When the state assigned one to Guilford County for the first six months of 2017, he said, the county used that extra help to open a DWI court, which was a major success.
“I was able to add the emergency judge,” Jarrell said. “It was almost like I had 15 judges every day – but the emergency judge went away in July.”
When the county had the extra judge, it made major headway in reducing its backlog of DWI cases. The county had carried that big backlog for years and that led to some cases being dropped because of the length of time it took to deal with them. At the start of 2017, Guilford County implemented the DWI court that focused on those types of cases. Jarrell said the arrangement worked very well and the special court helped reduce the backlog.
Now, he said, he worries that that number is going to creep back up since the county is shorthanded again.
“Everybody ended up liking it,” he said of the DWI court. “When it started I thought there would be some pushback from the defense attorneys, but everyone was pleased.”
Despite the recent closure of the DWI court, area law enforcement agencies are still bringing in those cases in droves. Drunk driving has been a focal point of Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes and his department, as well as of the Greensboro and High Point police departments, which all work together to combat the problem.
“BJ Barnes’ task force is the most productive in the state and they are bringing good cases to us,” Jarrell said.
The Sheriff’s Department is the lead agency in that effort that relies on grant money to set up special checkpoints and take other measures to combat drunk driving.
Late last year, Guilford County had a backlog of 4,226 DWI cases and, by July 2017, with help of the special court and the emergency judge, that number had been knocked down to 2,727. Jarrell said he worries the number will start to increase.
He said he is discussing the shortage with legislators in an effort to get Guilford County some judicial help in the form of a permanent new District Court judge, or at least a revitalization of the emergency judge program.
“What I’m hoping is that the legislature will see the ramifications of the emergency judges situation and hopefully modify it,” he said. “Otherwise, the cases will overtake the system and justice won’t be served.”
Jarrell said he’d spoken with several state representatives about the situation.
NC Rep. Jon Hardister said this week that he’s open to studying the problem and seeing what remedies can be found. He said state lawmakers have been talking about several potential changes in the way District Court judges are elected, and he said there could be a need to redraw many judicial districts across the state.
Hardister said he agrees Guilford County needs more judges.
“One thing I think we need to look at is the 14 district judges,” he said. “I feel like we need to have more.”
Hardister said that, in some parts of North Carolina, populations have shifted but judicial districts haven’t been updated in the same way that political districts have been. He said that creates a disparity in judges’ caseloads in some parts of the state.
“The districts have not changed,” Hardister said. “Judicial districts get lopsided and we need to look at that.”
He also said that state legislators may simultaneously consider other potential changes to the process of electing judges since it’s currently a complex system. The judges are elected countywide, something that makes it harder on voters and candidates alike.
“If you’re a voter, you have 14 to keep up with,” he said of the situation in Guilford County. “Now they don’t all run at one time, but it can be a lot to keep up with. And the candidates have to run countywide.”
Guilford County Pretrial Services Director Karen Moore said that she and others in the court system hope to see more judges soon.
“We are affected by the significant shortage of emergency judges,” Moore said.
Moore added that Pretrial Services is doing what it can to support Jarrell and the other judges. For instance, she said, her office is working with Jarrell to move the time of first appearances court in High Point from morning to afternoon. Now it will happen at the same time as first appearances court in Greensboro.
Jarrell said that will create a better workflow for judges in High Point and, he hopes, make more efficient use of the judges’ time by causing less “stopping and starting.”
Barnes said he shares Jarrell’s view of a need for additional judges in Guilford County.
“He’s right about the judges,” he said of Jarrell. “They need more.”
Barnes said the judge shortage at the courthouse has an effect on his law enforcement operations because his officers often have to show up in court to testify. He said cases may be continued because of a lack of a judge and his officers therefore have to come back another day after waiting around at the courthouse. Barnes said he wants those officers out in the field instead.
He also said the closing of the DWI court was bad news for the county.
“It’s definitely helped us with the backlog,” Barnes said of the special court. “I know Tom likes it and I like it too.”
Barnes said people keep driving under the influence so those DWI cases will continue to come in whether or not the county has the judges to hear them.
The sheriff said the county’s shortage of court workers doesn’t end with judges.
“If you have more judges, you have to have more clerks and other support staff,” the sheriff said.