North Carolinians divided on fairness in the courts

North Carolinians believe that wealthy individuals and white people receive better treatment by the state courts than do black residents, Hispanics, low-income defendants or those without a lawyer, according to the latest Elon University Poll.

And more than half of North Carolinians likewise believe people without attorneys, low-income people, and those who don’t speak English receive somewhat or far worse treatment than others in the court system.

The Elon University Poll’s live-caller, dual frame (landline and cell phone) survey of 1,234 residents was conducted Oct. 29-Nov. 2, 2015. The survey had a margin of error of 2.79 percentage points for a sample of North Carolinians weighted by age, gender, race and phone use.

In addition to surveying registered voters about their political opinions, the most recent poll included questions suggested by the North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice, an independent commission convened earlier this year by Chief Justice Mark Martin of the Supreme Court of North Carolina. Luke Bierman, dean of the Elon University School of Law, is a member of the commission.

The commission is undertaking a comprehensive evaluation of the state judicial system to make recommendations for strengthening the courts within existing administrative framework. The commission will share its findings and recommendations in a series of reports to be made available to the public in early 2017.

“The public in North Carolina have high levels of confidence in the local police force and generally believe most people receive fair outcomes in our court system,” said Assistant Professor Kenneth Fernandez, director of the Elon University Poll. “However, when asked specifically about how blacks, Hispanics, non-English speaking and low-income people are treated, most respondents acknowledge these groups frequently receive worse treatment by the courts.”

Forty percent of North Carolinians believe that, as a whole, people usually or always receive a fair outcome in their dealings with the courts. The breakdown by various groups wasn’t as unanimous.

Groups (with percent saying the group is treated “somewhat” or “far” worse)

  • People without a lawyer: 76 percent
  • Low-income people: 64 percent
  • Non-English speakers: 53 percent
  • African Americans: 46 percent
  • Hispanics: 46 percent
  • Middle class/working class people: 17 percent
  • White people: 4 percent
  • Wealthy people: 2 percent

North Carolinians also believe the courts are influenced by politics. Just 17 percent of respondents “agree” or “strongly agree” that the courts are “free from political influences,” while 76 percent disagree to some degree.

Seventy-six percent of those polled said political parties influence judges’ decisions; 75 percent believe judges’ decisions are influenced as well by the fact they must run for election.

“These results may reflect the fact that North Carolina had the nation’s second-highest level of campaign spending in judicial elections in 2014,” said Assistant Professor Jason Husser, assistant director of the Elon University Poll. “Our state trails only Michigan in how much money all candidates spent in seeking seats on the bench.”

Of those polled, just 30 percent responded that they had ever served on a jury in the North Carolina court system; 28 percent said they had either been a plaintiff or a defendant. And 24 percent reported having testified as a witness in a court proceeding.

Confidence in Institutions

North Carolinians also were asked about their level of confidence in several institutions. More than four out of five respondents said they were either “somewhat” or “very” confident in their local police or sheriff’s office. No other institution saw that level of response.

Institution (with percentage of respondents either somewhat or very confident in it)

  • Local police/sheriff: 81 percent
  • North Carolina state courts: 66 percent
  • Local public schools: 66 percent
  • U.S. Supreme Court: 65 percent
  • Federal government: 37 percent
  • The media: 36 percent

Levels of confidence broke along ideological and racial lines. Fifty-one percent of Republicans said they were “very confident” in their local police, compared to 29 percent of Democrats. Forty-four percent of whites expressed great confidence in their police; that compares to 22 percent of blacks.

If there was one institution that could unite Republicans and Democrats, it was the media, an institution distrusted by a vast majority of both groups. Only 1 percent of Republicans said they were very confident in media. Ten times as many Democrats reported they were “very confident in media” – or just 10 percent total.