The North Carolina Poverty Research Fund has released a report revealing ways in which it says the North Carolina General Assembly interferes with the authority of state courts through the micromanagement of court fines and fees.
The report, called “Forcing Judges to Criminalize Poverty: Eroding Judicial Independence in North Carolina,” was released in November and reveals ways state lawmakers have limited the ability of judges to waive court fees and fines for defendants unable to pay them.
Co-author of the report Heather Hunt says while it is well within the judges authority to waive fines and fees, they rarely do.
“The numbers that are provided by the court system are not great; they’re not very accurate,” she says. “But using those numbers, about 5 percent of legal financial obligations, monetary obligations of the court are waived across the state.”
One reason judges are often hesitant to waive these fees, according to Hunt, is the agency notice requirement, which was added by the General Assembly and requires judges to send a notice to each government agency that would receive a portion of the fee being waived.
“[The agency notice requirement] creates a tremendous burden on the court system; it costs a lot of money and it takes a lot of time,” says Hunt. “This is a serious disincentive to waiving.”
North Carolina is the only state in the country the requires judges to provide an agency notice, Hunt says.
The other barrier focused on in the report is the annual waiver report, which identifies each judge by name along with the number of legal obligations that they waived.
Hunt says these barriers are in direct interference with the state’s separation-of-powers doctrine.
“The key function of the judiciary branch is the administration of justice,” says Hunt. “Tampering with the administration of justice, that is: case outcome, or determining the outcomes in a particular case, is interfering with the core authority of the courts.”
The full report is available at law.unc.edu.