13 September 2007

Justice, Chatham Style

Rabbit's post "Chicken Eats Flies" was so good I had to respond, in a way.

In reading that old standby "Chatham County 1771-1971" I came across this tidbit. There were four courthouses built in Pittsboro. The first was moved from its original location south of town to downtown proper, where it remained as a store until burning down in the 20s. The next two were so shoddily built they didn't last. Here is the story of one of them, from the book:

The second courthouse, also constructed of wood, was so flimsy that during a dramatic moment in a trial being held there, a strong wind blew off the roof. All the jurors, spectators, witnesses and court personnel were so frightened they fled, leaving the judge and defendant. The judge is reported to have found the defendant "not guilty," saying, "He stayed with me when all others fled and I will stand by him."

About this time the jail burned and the county commissioners decided to build a new courthouse and jail, this time of brick.


This story is so good it deserves a follow-up. I'll report more when I can track down contemporary court records and get a comment from Superior Court Judge Allen Baddour.

Update: From Judge Baddour, in the comments:

As to the defendant in that particular case, I can find no reference to it in the Court of Appeals. I suppose the State did not appeal, jeopardy had attached and the matter was not continued due to the sudden emergency; a not guilty, or more properly, dismissal by the court for failure to prosecute, is the remedy.

1 comment:

allen said...

Perhaps the County Commissioners of the time did not read the following case. In 1908, the North Carolina Supreme Court held that an indictment of the County Commissioners on the below was proper, and should not be quashed.

STATE v. JOHN F. LEEPER et als., COMMISSIONERS OF GASTON COUNTY.
146 N.C. 655; 61 S.E. 585; 1908 N.C. LEXIS 282

May 20, 1908, Filed

The defendants, who are County Commissioners of Gaston County, were indicted in the following bill:

"The jurors for the State, upon their oaths, present: That John F. Leeper, J. W. Kendrick, O. G. Falls, A. R. Anders, J. C. Puett and R. K. Davenport, Commissioners of Gaston County, N.C. were duly elected Commissioners of Gaston County at the general election held in the year 1906 for members of the General Assembly and other officers required by law to be elected at that time in Gaston County, N. C.; that they were elected for two years from the first Monday of December, 1906, and took the oath required by law for county commissioners, and entered upon the discharge of their duties as Commissioners of Gaston County, N.C. and now are acting and were at the time hereinafter mentioned acting as the Board of County Commissioners of Gaston County, N. C.; that, under the laws of North Carolina (Revisal of 1905, Vol. [***2] I, ch. 23, sec. 1318, subsec. 26), it is made the duty of the Board of Commissioners of Gaston County (naming them, as above) 'to erect and repair the necessary county buildings and to raise by taxation the moneys therefor'; that the county courthouse is a necessary county building for Gaston County, N. C.; that the present county courthouse for Gaston County, N.C. was built about sixty years ago, when Gaston County had a population of about 7,228; that Gaston County now has a population of about 30,000, or more; that the present courthouse is not large enough to hold the records of Gaston County, N. C.; that it is not large enough to accommodate the public officers of Gaston, who are required to keep their offices in said building; that it is not large enough for the suitors, jurors and witnesses who attend the courts of Gaston County, as by law they are required to do; that it is a small, incommodious building, inadequate and unsuitable to the present needs of the county of Gaston, N.C. is not in good repair, and is in no sense a courthouse or county building necessary to the present needs of the public; that John F. Leeper and the others named above, commissioners as aforesaid, [***3] on the first day of November, 1907, unlawfully and willfully did omit, neglect and refuse to discharge the duty of their office, in that they unlawfully and willfully omitted, neglected and refused 'to erect and repair the necessary courthouse for Gaston County, N.C. and to raise by taxation the moneys therefor,' contrary to the form of the statute in such case made and provided, and against the peace and dignity of the State.


Or, maybe they were aware of what would come, based on what occurred in our neighboring county of Alamance, eighty-three years later:

IN THE MATTER OF THE ALAMANCE COUNTY COURT FACILITIES

SUPREME COURT OF NORTH CAROLINA
329 N.C. 84; 405 S.E.2d 125; 1991 N.C. LEXIS 407

December 11, 1989, Heard in the Supreme Court, June 12, 1991, Filed


“Based upon its findings of fact, the order concluded that the courtrooms and related judicial offices for Alamance County were "grossly inadequate, being in the large either obsolete, poorly designed, or nonexistent." The effects of such inadequacies included denying access to the handicapped and physically disabled, thwarting the effective assistance of counsel to litigants in violation of the law of the land, jeopardizing the right to trial by jury in civil and criminal cases, and causing delays in the prosecution and defense of civil cases. In addition, the lack of detention rooms constituted a clear and present danger to persons present at criminal judicial proceedings as well as to the public at large.
The order also resolved that the county was financially able to provide adequate judicial facilities and that it was the duty of the county acting through its commissioners to make these provisions.



The order's conclusions were followed by a "Recommendation" which took particular notice of the fact of "undesignated unreserved funds of $ 15,655, 778.00 as of June 30, 1988," with which the commissioners could begin construction of a new courthouse. This recommendation recognized, however, that "[t]he decision of whether or not to construct a new Courthouse, as opposed to providing the courtrooms and related judicial facilities as required by law, is within the sound discretion of the County Commissioners."




The two solutions proposed by this Court to commissioner recalcitrance were nonremedial. First, there was the ballot box: "For the exercise of powers conferred by the Constitution, the people must rely upon the honesty of the members of the General Assembly and of the persons elected to fill places of trust in the several counties." Satterthwaite v. Commrs., 76 N.C. 153 (1877). Second, commissioners could be indicted for neglecting their statutory duty to erect and keep facilities in repair. See State v. Leeper, 146 N.C. 655, 61 S.E. 585 (1908). Means of compelling county commissioners to remedy inadequate court facilities immediately were absent, however, for although "the cost of a courthouse is a necessary expense to a county, . . . the exercise of the discretionary authority of the commissioners in providing in this case to meet it is not reviewable by the courts." Vaughn v. Commissioners, 117 N.C. 429, 435-36, 23 S.E. 354, 355 (1895). See also Ward v. Commissioners, 146 N.C. 534, 60 S.E. 418 (1908) (Mandamus will not lie to compel county commissioners to repair or build a courthouse because matter is discretionary; court can intervene only to punish for criminal abuse of duty); Glenn v. Commissioners, 139 N.C. 412, 52 S.E. 58 (1905) (Mandamus cannot issue commanding county commissioners to repair a bridge).



Counties in which a district court has been established have an absolute statutory duty to provide judicial facilities. N.C.G.S. § 7A-302 (1989). In cities other than county seats where sessions of superior court are held, boards of commissioners are obligated by statute to provide "suitable" places for holding such sessions of court. N.C.G.S. § 7A-42(h) (1989). Such duties are ministerial in all but the details of their exercise -- the commissioners' interpretation of what is "suitable," or adequate. In matters involving the exercise of discretion, mandamus will lie only to compel public officials to take action; ordinarily it will not require them to act in any particular way. Hospital v. Joint Committee, 234 N.C. at 680, 68 S.E.2d at 868. When an officer has failed to exercise his ministerial duty -- under the facts of this case, to provide "adequate" court facilities -- or when he has exercised his discretion in disregard of the law, the writ of mandamus may be employed to obtain an effective, timely remedy.



We hold that the order sub judice exceeded what was reasonably necessary to the administration of justice under the circumstances of this case, and in so doing strained at the rational limits of the court's inherent power


And so, perhaps the Chatham County Commissioners of the time understood the adequacy of that particular courthouse, in that no one would expect such high winds in Chatham County.

As to the defendant in that particular case, I can find no reference to it in the Court of Appeals. I suppose the State did not appeal, jeopardy had attached and the matter was not continued due to the sudden emergency; a not guilty, or more properly, dismissal by the court for failure to prosecute, is the remedy.