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State cuts judges to keep legal system ticking

State funding cuts for magistrate judges are taking a toll on rural counties and the judges themselves. Long hours, a growing workload and a shrinking workforce are changing the way this staple position in the state justice system does business.


In Macon County, a part-time magistrate that was stationed in Highlands was laid off earlier this year. The change meant Macon County joined the list of about 40 rural North Carolina counties with just three magistrate judges to cover a 24/7 never-ending legal cycle of arrests, marriages, involuntary commitments, domestic violence protection orders and much more.

“All rural counties are facing the same problem,” said Ronnie Beale, a Macon county commissioner, who is hoping the legislature will fund the justice system to bring back the lost rural magistrates.

While most people are familiar with the judge in the black robe who sits behind a bench, the magistrate is the catch-all, workhorse in the legal system that must see to nearly every served warrant and arrested suspect, in addition to other duties like small claims court, approving search warrants and beginning the involuntarily commitment process.

But despite their necessity, since 2010, the number of magistrate judges working in the seven western counties has been reduced from more than 30 to 23. The only county in the district to have more than three is now Haywood. Jackson and Swain counties have been operating short staffed for years now.

“And that’s in a system that has been expanding, not contracting, in terms of cases and activity,” said Judge Richard Holt, the Chief District Court Judge for the seven western counties.

Holt pointed out that in the late 1970s, Jackson County had four or five magistrate judges. Fast-forward to 2011, with more crime, population and law enforcement, when the county began operating with three magistrates following cuts from the legislature.

And even though staff numbers have been reduced, that doesn’t mean magistrate hours can also be reduced. A judge needs to be on call at all times.

To compensate, judges are working out of their homes and using video phones to save time on calls instead of showing up in person. Most are working 56 hours per week, while Jackson County magistrates work three 72-hour weeks so they can have one light week to go to the dentist and take care of other regular needs.

Without at least four judges per county, it is difficult to find another magistrate to cover in extenuating circumstances.

“Vacations, sickness and deaths in the family really make it tough,” Holt said.

In Swain County, Magistrate Judge Curt Graham said the county was cut down to three magistrates from four about two years ago. This week, he had a marathon 112-hour shift, a mix of being on call and in the office, to cover for another other magistrate who typically works weekends. Although much of that time can be spent waiting for something to happen, events can happen in a spate, and there’s no guarantee for sleep.

“I was in bed asleep last night and got a call at 10:30 p.m. that someone had been arrested,” Graham said last Wednesday. “I was back home by midnight, and that was actually a slow night. Weekends are the busiest.”

Although he acknowledged cuts needed to be made to the state budget, he disagreed that the justice system should take such a hit. Furthermore, he said no alternatives have been implemented which could reduce the load on the criminal justice system.

“They haven’t talked about legalizing certain crimes or stopping prosecuting types of things,” Graham said. “They want everything, but they don’t want to provide personnel to do it.”


Magistrates go viral

One of the key ways local magistrates have been addressing staffing cuts is with video phone technology. It is already being used in two of the seven western counties, and after receiving the necessary approval a few months ago, the program will be expanded into the others.

The technology was introduced a few years ago in Jackson County to compensate for staffing reductions that had hit the year prior, reductions that took Jackson County from five to three magistrates with no coincidental let-up in crime or duties.

Albert Reagan, a county magistrate judge, remembered with distaste the long nights before the video telephones were put in place.

“I didn’t get an established eight hours of sleep that entire year,” Reagan said. “It was getting pretty frustrating.”

The apparatus consist of a small, Skype-like video screen attached to a telephone receiver. The phones are placed in the houses of the local magistrates as well as local detention facilities and law enforcement offices.

Because of the success of Jackson County’s test run with the new technology, in the coming months, other counties in the western region of the state could begin seeing the technology. Cherokee County has already started to use them.

However, there is a catch. Unless the equipment has the support of cooperating law enforcement agencies, it is useless. It also requires know-how from agents to be able to access the state’s court system database, called N.C. AWARE, and upload files electronically so that a judge on the other end of the connection can view that paperwork.

“The telephone will work based on how well people embrace the technology,” Reagan said.

If functioning smoothly, they allow magistrates to be shown physical evidence from officers, swear in persons, talk face-to-face with defendants and streamline other tasks. For magistrates — who take every middle-of-the-night call from arrests to involuntary commitments — the ability to handle some of those duties from home rather than making the trip into the office is a time-saver, said Reagan. 

Moreover, magistrates don’t receive reimbursements for mileage like other state employees, so being able to avoid an extra trip to the office reduces the chunk of money that is taken out of their salaries for gasoline and car maintenance.

One night last week, Reagan received four calls. For two of them, he could use the video conferencing phone. The video system can reduce the time needed to handle each of those calls by an hour or two.

However, one of them, an arrest for driving under the influence, still forced him into the office from 1 a.m. until 4:30 a.m. Those types of calls are still too complex to be handled over a video phone and act as a stark reminder that although the new technology may be helping, it is no substitute for the two magistrates lost, or compensation for the added workload.

Reagan said that, in addition to the staffing cuts, all magistrates wages have been frozen for years.

“(The video phones) are not the equivalent of five magistrates, where we should be, or supplementing pay,” Reagan said. “But, it’s a tremendous help.” 

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