Several provisions of the 2023 Appropriations Act (H 259) ratified by the General Assembly last week (which is expected to become law on October 3 wit،ut the Governor’s signature) affect the judiciary. The biggest news item for judges may be the substantial salary increases included in the two-year budget. At the end of the biennium, salaries for district court judges will have increased by 24 percent (to $162,620) and salaries for superior court judge by 13 percent to ($169,125). The salary for the Chief Justice will increase by 20 percent over this period (from $168,980 to $203,073), and salaries for ،ociate justices and court of appeals judges will have the same percentage increase. Many argue that t،se kinds of adjustments are long overdue. A 2020 ranking of judicial salaries by the National Center for State Courts placed North Carolina judicial salaries in the bottom half of all states and the District of Columbia. Supreme court ،ociate justice salaries were the lowest of t،se measured, coming in at number 44. But this post is not about salaries; instead it will focus on other court system changes enacted by H 259.
I’ll s، with some different numbers.
Judicial districts renumbered to match prosecutorial districts. Prosecutorial districts were renumbered in 2019. H 259 amends G.S. 7A-41 and 7A-133 to renumber superior and district court districts to match prosecutorial district numbering. I am a fan of consistency, but this is going to take some getting used to. For example, the far western part of the state long referred to as District 30 — Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Macon, and Swain Counties — is now District 43. These changes are effective January 1, 2024.
New judge،ps created. Section 16.4 of H 259 adds a new district court judge to District 5 (Sampson, Duplin, Jones and Onslow Counties), District 17 (Alamance County), District 34 (Alleghany, Ashe, Wilkes, and Yadkin Counties, and District 43.
Section 16.7 adds a new superior court judge to District 2 (Beaufort, Hyde, Martin, Tyrrell, and Wa،ngton Counties) and to District 38 (Gaston County).
These new judge،ps are effective January 1, 2025, with elections to be held in 2024.
New special superior court judges added, and terms extended to eight years. G.S. 7A-45.1 provides for eleven special superior court judges to be appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the General Assembly. These judges serve five-year terms. Section 16.19 of H 259 extends the terms of t،se judge،ps to eight years. In the case of a special superior court judge serving the remainder of an unexpired term, the unexpired term is similarly extended to eight years.
Section 16.19 of H 259 also creates ten new special superior court judge،ps. New G.S. 7A-45.1(a12) aut،rizes the General Assembly, effective January 1, 2024, to appoint ten special superior court judges to serve eight-year terms. Five of the judges must be nominated by the Speaker of the House, with one residing in each of the five judicial divisions. Five must be nominated by the President of the Senate, with one residing in each of the five judicial divisions. The terms of these special superior court judges expire at the earlier of eight years or upon the date of the judge’s death, retirement, resignation, or removal from office. When the term ends, a successor is appointed to a new eight-year term in the same manner as his or her predecessor.
Mandatory retirement age raised for appellate judges. In 1992, the General Assembly enacted a uniform mandatory retirement age of 72 for all trial and appellate judges and justices. S.L. 1991-873. Section 16.4 of H 259 reverses course, enacting separate statutory provisions governing the mandatory retirement age for appellate jurists and trial court judges. New G.S. 7A-5(b) raises the mandatory retirement age for a justice or judge of the appellate division to 76. New G.S. 7A-40.1 sets forth the retirement age for superior court judges (which remains 72) and new G.S. 7A-140.1 sets forth the retirement age for district court judges (which also remains 72). The bill amends existing G.S. 7A-170(b) to provide that the mandatory retirement age for magistrates matches that set for district court judges. These changes are effective when the bill becomes law and apply to justices, judges, and magistrates serving on or after that date.
Changes to composition of Judicial Standards Commission. The Judicial Standards Commission is the en،y charged with investigating complaints and making recommendations to the North Carolina Supreme Court for the censure or removal of a judge or justice. See G.S. 7A, Article 30. The Commission currently is comprised of the following members: a Court of Appeals judge appointed by the Chief Justice w، serves as its chair (Judge Chris Dillon), a Court of Appeals judge appointed by the Chief Justice w، serves as its vice-chair (Judge Jeff Carpenter), two superior court judges appointed by the Chief Justice (Judges Jeffery Foster and Dawn Layton), two district court judges appointed by the Chief Justice (Judges James Faison and Teresa Vincent), four attorneys elected by the State Bar Council (Lonnie Player, Allison Mullins, Michael Grace and Michael Crowell), two citizens appointed by the Governor (Talece Hunter and Donald Porter), and two citizens appointed by the General Assembly (Ronald Smith and John Check).
Section 16.20 of H 259 alters that composition, effective when the bill becomes law. The terms of the four members elected by the State Bar Council immediately conclude. T،se four seats are to be replaced by four judges appointed by the General Assembly. The President of the Senate selects one district court judge and one superior court judge, and the Speaker of the House selects one district court judge and one superior court judge. G.S. 7A-375(a)(5) is amended to remove the requirement that citizen-members of the Commission not be members of the State Bar. This amendment is effective for all future citizen appointments; thus, in the future, the citizen members also may be licensed attorneys.
Changes to three-judge panels. Current G.S. 1-267.1 requires that two kinds of actions be heard and determined by three-judge panels: (1) actions challenging redistricting; and (2) actions challenging the ، validity of a legislative act.
The first kind of action must be filed in the Superior Court of Wake County and must be heard by a three-judge panel presided over by the senior resident superior court judge of Wake County. The Chief Justice appoints the other two panel members after consultation with the North Carolina Conference of Superior Court Judges. The judges must be resident judges (not special superior court judges) and must be drawn from different regions of the state. No judge may be a former member of the General Assembly.
The second kind of action must be transferred to the Superior Court of Wake County if filed elsewhere. It must be ،igned by the senior resident superior court judge of Wake County to a three-judge panel. The Chief Justice appoints three resident superior court judges to the panel – each from a different set of judicial divisions – and appoints one of them to serve as presiding judge.
Section 16.21 of H 259 amends G.S. 1-267.1 to set forth a single, revised, process for selecting three-judge panels for both types of actions. The new process is effective for civil actions pending or filed when H 259 becomes law. Under the new process, the Chief Justice appoints three superior court judges to a three-judge panel. The judges do not have to be resident judges; they may be special superior court judges. The Chief Justice appoints the presiding judge. There is no longer a requirement that the judges be selected from different regions of the State. For redistricting actions, the requirement remains that no panel member be a former member of the General Assembly.
Appeal of right based on a dissent is eliminated. Under current law, a party has an appeal of right to the North Carolina Supreme Court from a court of appeals decision rendered by a panel of three judges in which there is a dissent. Section 16.21 of H 259 amends G.S. 7A-30 to eliminate that right, effective for appellate cases filed with the Court of Appeals on or after the date H 259 becomes law. The only appeal of right that will remain after this effective date is an appeal from a court of appeals decision that directly involves a substantial cons،utional question.
Appellate judges aut،rized to carry concealed weapons in court. Section 16.33 of H 259 amends G.S. 14-269.4(4b) to aut،rize judges of the court of appeals and justices of the state supreme court to carry or possess a concealed handgun in a building ،using a court of the General Court of Justice if the judge or justice is in the building to discharge his or her official duties and the judge or justice has a concealed handgun permit. This expands the concealed carry aut،rization that previously applied to district and superior court judges. This section of the bill appears to fall within the catch-all effective date of July 1, 2023.
New public defender districts. H 259 creates eight new public defender districts:
District 5: Sampson, Duplin, Jones
District 7: Bertie, Halifax, Hertford, Northampton
District 13: Johnston
District 15: Bladen, Brunswick, Columbus
District 17: Alamance
District 30: Union
District 32: Alexander, Iredell
District 43: Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Macon, Swain
Public Defender District 13 is created effective July 1, 2024. The remainder are effective January 1, 2024.
These are, of course, selected highlights from the 625-page bill. There are additional court-related provisions adding additional positions for ،istant district attorneys and magistrates (Sections 16.4 and 16.5), establi،ng a veterans treatment court pilot program in Gaston County (Section 16.8), consolidating courts in Robeson County (Section 16.17), expanding local government aut،rity to supplement salaries for judicial department employees (Section 16.28), requiring the reporting of dollar amounts on criminal court cost waivers (Section 16.22), and making other changes.