Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Lake in '08?

While he was still chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court, I. Beverly Lake Jr. pushed the General Assembly for more resources for the state court system – more clerks, more prosecutors, more court reporters, and especially better electronic equipment. But Lake was never able to persuade the legislature to provide nearly as many resources as the court system needed.
One reason may have been the state’s lack of money. Another was wariness of the Democrat-dominated General Assembly to giving more resources to an appellate court system that had produced some adverse judicial opinions on redistricting and voting. At one point a few years ago, lawmakers were grumbling to the point of discussing impeachment – truly a crackpot idea. It went nowhere after former Chief Justice Burley Mitchell placed a few calls to his Democratic friends in the legislature. But Lake never persuaded lawmakers to beef up spending on the judicial branch in a major way.
Lake had pursued one other goal. He appointed a study commission in 2002 called the Actual Innocence Commission to develop ways for the courts to respond more effectively to credible claims of innocence by those behind bars. That commission recommended an Innocence Inquiry Commission to investigate claims of factual innocence. If a majority of eight commissioners agreed there was substantive evidence of factual innocence, the case would go to a special panel of judges in Superior Court to hold a hearing. If they found unanimously that the inmate was innocent, the charges would be dropped.
Lake retired at age 72 as chief justice earlier this year, and a funny thing happened since then. Thanks partly to the fact that there was more than $2 billion available for lawmakers to play with, and partly to the fact that Gov. Mike Easley recommended a big boost in court spending, the legislature approved a significant increase for the courts for the first time in years.
And Monday night, the Senate voted 48-1 to approve a bill similar to a measure approved by the House 80-23 last year to create the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission.
It must have been extremely gratifying to Lake, a former state senator and superior court judge, to watch from the gallery as the bill whose origins he launched was so overwhelmingly approved. In fact, senators gave Lake a standing ovation after the bill passed.
It was all the more remarkable because the legislature had not invited Lake to give State of the Judiciary addresses to joint legislative sessions, as it had with his predecessors. The warm ovation Monday night probably did a lot to soothe ruffled feelings between the legislative and judicial branches. But it’s also interesting to note that Lake has let it be known he may run for the Republican nomination for governor in 2008. After all, he’s got a couple of new legislative accomplishments to brag about. That might not be enough to build a campaign around, but it’s a start. Lake in ’08?


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