By Rachel Baldauf
As the COVID-19 pandemic halted jury trials and swelled the backlog of court cases, two district attorneys in southeastern North Carolina compared notes.
Jon David, district attorney for Bladen, Brunswick and Columbus counties, told Robeson County District Attorney Matt Scott that his district had begun holding court at a local middle school to more easily allow for social distancing.
Scott loved the idea. Before long, Robeson County moved traffic court from the courthouse in downtown Lumberton to the Robeson Community College auditorium.
Court officials now credit that kind of creative thinking for a 25% drop in the number of pending cases statewide. There are now about 900,000 pending cases, down from 1.2 million in March 2021, according to the North Carolina Judicial Branch.
In the Border Belt, Bladen, Columbus, Scotland and Robeson counties all saw similar drops. Columbus County saw the sharpest decline of over 36% from July 2021 to Jan. 2023, data from the North Carolina Judicial Branch shows.
“We were very, very limited in what we could do, what we could move and what cases we could dispose of,” Scott said, adding that Robeson County went from handling a few hundred court cases a day to a few dozen. “And it was like that for over a year.”
In the 2020-2021 fiscal year, Robeson County had 30,864 pending cases. By last January, that number had dropped to 22,961.
Like many places across the country, Robeson County’s case backlog was exacerbated by a spike in violent crime during the pandemic. Robeson saw a 35% increase in violent crime between 2019 and 2020 and led North Carolina in violent crime per 100,000 residents in 2020.
Columbus County has reduced its court backlog by over 36% since the height of the pandemic. Chief District Court Judge Scott Ussery heard cases at Hallsboro Middle School in Columbus County for 11 months.
“We did everything we could as the stakeholders in our community to make sure the system didn’t stop,” Ussery said in a recent North Carolina Judicial Branch podcast.
Columbus County also made use of a North Carolina statute that allows for low-level felony cases to be tried in district court rather than superior court, as long as the judge and both parties agree.
Robeson County hopes to do the same in the coming years, Scott said. That way, superior court judges could focus on more serious felonies like murders.
Other factors also helped reduce the statewide backlog, experts say. Some cases were handled virtually, and district attorneys offices statewide received pending case reports detailing which types of cases in their districts had the biggest backlogs.
Robeson County has gotten state and federal help. Since the start of the pandemic, N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein’s office has prosecuted 12 murder cases in the county to ease the burden on Scott’s office.
The county also worked with Michael F. Easley Jr., U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina, to identify pending cases that might qualify for federal prosecution.
Though significant progress has been made on the case backlog in Robeson County, Scott says there’s still more work to be done. Robeson still has more pending cases than Durham County, where the population is more than twice as large.
Scott said staffing shortages in his office make chipping away at the backlog slow work. Over the past two years, Scott said he has consistently had three to four unfilled job openings.
“You’d post these jobs, and where before you’d get 40, 50 applicants,” he said. “You post these jobs now, and you get zero applicants.”
Convincing recent law school graduates to move to Robeson County is a difficult task, according to Scott. Lawyers tend to gravitate toward urban areas where salaries and quality of life are often higher.
Still, Scott sees silver linings. Traffic court is still being held at the Robeson Community College auditorium, where the judge and clerks sit just below the stage.
Scott said the arrangement makes everyone happy: Security guards like the reduced crowds at the Robeson County Courthouse, and defendants paying fines for speeding tickets appreciate the quicker process.
“That actually was one of the only bright spots coming out of COVID,” Scott said.