Very few people are happy with the way misdemeanor appeals works in much of North Carolina. District Criminal Court in North Carolina does not have juries. Trials are heard by judges who both decide the factual issues, guilt and innocence, and impose punishment. Only a small percentage of cases are actually appealed to Superior Court.
But even the small number of appealed cases can clog things up. That’s because, given how few judges we have in North Carolina, there are simply too many cases for judges to hear in a timely fashion. In Wake County during a given Misdemeanor Appeals week, the prosecutor is typically able to try two jury trials, and have maybe 3 or 4 motions heard. Sometimes things go a little faster. Sometimes a little slower.
But given that there are hundreds upon hundreds of cases to try each week, that leaves hundreds of cases untried, creates a backlog, and leads to three and four year delays in some counties before misdemeanors are tried and resolved. This creates uncertainty for hundreds of people who seek to have their cases decided. And there’s enormous expense, especially because in many cases defendants need to periodically appear in court (thereby missing work) for a calendar call only to find that their case is not being tried that week.
Because people have the constitutional right to appeal a guilty verdict for a trial de novo in front of a jury, the North Carolina General Assembly is limited in its ability to restrict jury trials.
But that isn’t keeping it from trying…
Senate Bill 182 now before the legislature would limit appeals for people who plead guilty in District Court. That would require them, if they do wish to appeal, to appeal straight to the Court of Appeals. This law would only apply to people who plead guilty, which means that it would have the effect of clogging up District Court by requiring defendants who wish to appeal the case, for whatever purpose, to either have a trial (and presumably lose and then appeal) or plead not guilty, not resist the verdict, which would permit the appeal.
So either the law is entirely ineffective, creating a new language by which appeal is effected following a guilty plea. Or it would jam up District Court by forcing more people to have a trial in District Court.
The way to resolve the appeal problem is to first have more sensible results in District Court and, second, to hire more District Court and Superior Court judges. Instead of building a new courthouse, hire 20 new District Court judges. Instead of building a new jail, hire 20 new Superior Court judges.
Cases will be resolved if that happens. Cases will not be resolved by rewording the way appeals take place.