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Almost Heaven? Judicial Décor 101

Attorneys and judges everywhere are watching with amazement the developments in West Virginia, where the entire state Supreme Court bench is on the ropes.  Of the five Justices, one retired in July in anticipation of pleading guilty to a federal wire fraud charge, and the other four have been impeached by the West Virginia House of Delegates.  The impeachment cases will proceed to the state Senate for trial.  Details are available here https://www.cbsnews.com/news/west-virginia-lawmakers-vote-to-impeach-all-four-state-supreme-court-justices/ or at any number of other news websites.

While the allegations against the Justices include wasteful spending, abuse of authority, and neglect of duty, the media have focused on claims that excessive public funds were spent for office furniture (some of which may have been taken home) and for office renovations.  The amounts being tossed around are breathtaking, such as $32,000 for a couch, $42,000 for an antique desk and computer, and $363,000 in renovations to one office.

Be mindful, of course, that the allegations are only accusations and that charges and countercharges are being exchanged as to the politics that may lie behind the impeachments.  Nevertheless, looking at the more incendiary allegations, the question naturally arises: Could it happen here?The honest answer is, of course, yes. There will always be purported “public servants” who feast at the public trough.  However, the procedures, customs, and culture found in North Carolina’s appellate courts suggest that the risk of similar behavior here is slender.

Probably of greatest importance is that North Carolina court funding is different.  The Justices in West Virginia had individual authority to appropriate state funds.  No North Carolina Judge or Justice, acting alone, could make a similar request.  Moreover, Administrative Office of the Courts Director and former trial judge Marion Warren tells me that the AOC has robust internal audit procedures for the judicial branch and that the AOC coordinates with State Auditor Beth Wood.  Recently, during Bryan Boyd’s tenure as Clerk of the Supreme Court, a full audit was undertaken to ensure that best practices were being observed.  This information is consistent with my personal experiences that Chief Justices Lake, Parker, and Martin were all pretty tightfisted when it came to taxpayers’ dollars.

This careful attitude pervades the appellate courts.  When I joined that Court of Appeals in 1999, the building’s interior décor could be described as Mid-Twentieth Century Bus Terminal.  Chambers were chosen by the Judges in order of seniority, so the junior Judge always wound up in a uniquely weird setup on the second floor.  The chambers came furnished and Judges were required to leave the furniture with the office if they moved to different chambers. As the junior Judge, I gloried in a demonstrably collapsible desk left over from the Van Buren administration, plunked down in a funny-shaped room.  When I later moved to a nicer suite, the furniture there, while slightly newer, was still more functional than gracious.

The COA Judges could decorate their chambers as they saw fit, but anything beyond the necessities was at the individual Judge’s expense.  Since each Judge spent a lot of time sitting, desk chairs were available through the state and each Judge could journey to the facility on Yonkers Road and pick out something suitable.  In addition, a Judge could borrow art from the state museum to hang in chambers.  And, while my memory isn’t certain, I believe old and unused state-owned furniture in storage was available, suggesting episodes reminiscent of the final scenes in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” But any request for state funds for the purchase of extravagant furnishings would have raised eyebrows left and right.

In the following years, Chief Judges Eagles and Martin took salutary steps to improve the Court of Appeals building.  The courtroom, which had the worst acoustics in civilization, was renovated and the original central staircase was restored, giving the building a welcome airiness.  These improvements were undertaken with the support of the General Assembly so that expenditures were monitored and kept within reason.

Procedures in the Supreme Court were generally similar.  Chambers were selected in order of seniority, so a newly arrived Justice had last choice.  When I arrived, the chambers were all thoroughly used, with the wood paneling pocked by nail holes inflicted by prior tenants.  Furniture stayed put when Justices moved.  A modest exception involved stand-up desks.  Some were supplied by the state, but not enough for every chambers to have one.  If one became available upon the departure of a Justice, by tacit agreement whoever got to the desk first could keep it.  Midnight raids were not unknown; unconvincing claims of innocence would be voiced.

During the tenures of Chief Justices Lake and Parker, the Supreme Court building was partially gutted.  As with the renovation of the COA building, the work was coordinated with the General Assembly and such state agencies as the Department of Administration. The budget was closely monitored and the Court frequently met in conference for the sole purpose of tracking progress.  Any effort by an individual Justice to enhance their future chambers would not have passed unnoticed.  In fact, the Justices did not pick their chambers until late in the process.

The results were pretty dramatic. Previously, all the Justices’ chambers had been on the third floor, far from their clerks in the storied second floor bullpen.  Following the renovation, each Justice had a suite and the suites were scattered among three floors. The new chambers were roomy, comfortable, and outright gorgeous, and they were stocked with new desks and other furniture.  But we all understood that everything was meant to last.  To preserve the new paneling, the museum sent specialists to hang without nails art and laurels from the paper chase.  One of the first things the Justices did upon moving back in was to order glass tops for all the new desks to protect them from scrapes and stains.

Of course, each Justice could decorate his or her own chambers.  I had colleagues whose chambers were more comfortable and more homey than mine, but that was because they brought things from home or purchased accoutrements at their own expense.

So I believe that the citizens of North Carolina are protected from appellate judicial extravagance first by the absence of any procedures allowing an individual Judge or Justice to seek state funds; second by the tradition that each Judge or Justice makes do with what is supplied with the chambers, rummages through state surplus, or brings their own stuff; and third, by the fact that anyone hoping for the state to underwrite their patrician tastes would stand out like the proverbial sore thumb.  In short, it’s just not done.

–Bob Edmunds

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One Response to "Almost Heaven? Judicial Décor 101"

  • Leslie Rawls
    August 17, 2018 - 3:34 pm Reply

    Now that I’ve stopped laughing … thanks for the court insights and interior decorating tips. Who knows when Mid-Century Bus Terminal may come back!

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