What impact could HB 239 have on the North Carolina Court of Appeals?


A bill recently enacted by the North Carolina General Assembly (and vetoed by Governor Cooper), HB 239, seeks to decrease the number of judges at the North Carolina Court of Appeals from 15 to 12.  The bill also seeks to shift appellate jurisdiction over juvenile-3.1 cases from the Court of Appeals to the North Carolina Supreme Court. This post gives an overview of the COA judges’ workload in 2016 and projects how that workload might change if the General Assembly enacts HB 239 over the Governor’s veto.

HB 239 will shrink the COA by abolishing the next three judgeships that become vacant due to “death, resignation, retirement, impeachment, or removal.”  Barring any unforeseen circumstances, the next three judges that will reach mandatory retirement are:
  • Judge McCullough in May 2017,
  • Judge Hunter, Jr. in March 2019, and
  • Judge Calabria in October 2019 (if Judge Calabria wins reelection in 2018).

In 2016, each judge on the COA authored an average of 91 opinions.  The median was also 91.  The average and median both decrease to 78 if juvenile-3.1 cases are excluded from the number of authored opinions.

(During 2016, Judge Geer retired and Judge Enochs took her place for the balance of the year.  The above figures treat these two partial-year judges as one full-year judge.)

The following table shows:
  • How many total opinions each COA judge authored in 2016,
  • How many juvenile-3.1 opinions each judge authored in 2016, and
  • The difference between the above figures.  This difference estimates how many opinions each judge would have authored if she did not decide any juvenile cases in 2016.

Judge
Total Opinions
Juvenile-3.1 Opinions
Difference
1
77
10
67
2
79
13
66
3
85
9
76
4
85
11
74
5
90
10
80
6
90
15
75
7
90
15
75
8
91
10
81
9
92
14
78
10
93
14
79
11
94
15
79
12
96
18
78
13
99
14
85
14
101
11
90
15
104
12
92
Total
1366[1]
191
1175


If I assume that the flow of cases into the COA will remain constant, except for the diversion of juvenile-3.1 cases, I can roughly forecast how HB 239 might affect the judges’ workload.  When there are 14 judges, each judge will need to author approximately 84 opinions.  When there are 13 judges, each judge will need to author approximately 90 opinions.  Finally, when there are 12 judges, each judge will need to author approximately 98 opinions.  

Part of the reason why the net workload change is so modest, of course, is the diversion of juvenile-3.1 cases to the Supreme Court.  That point highlights a potential fallacy of comparing caseload averages:  discussing averages assumes that all cases, including juvenile-3.1 cases, entail a similar level of work for the court. 

In my experience clerking at the COA, this assumption is incorrect. A significant number of juvenile-3.1 cases present the same legal issue: termination of parental rights. A judge can often rely on the same legal research to resolve multiple juvenile cases. In contrast, non-juvenile cases often require greater incremental research per case. 

If enacted, HB 239 will increase the COA judges’ workload because the remaining 12 judges will have to work harder to decide more cases.



[1] There is one per curiam opinion from last year that is missing from this total.