Balancing the Scales: Judge Waives Fees for Indigent Defendants
Judge Mark Cummings is a newly elected judge in the 18th Judicial District of North Carolina. He is a Greensboro native, where he attended James B. Dudley High School. Judge Cummings received his Bachelor’s degree from Sewanee: The University of the South, and his Juris Doctorate from Campbell University.
Judge Cummings has dreamed of holding an elected position, that position was just never a judgeship. Instead, he aspired to be the President of the United States. However, it became apparent to Judge Cummings that the justice system does not value minority life on par with other citizens. “Justice is not blind,” said Judge Cummings, so he ran for District Court judge to try “bring a balance to the system.” In one of his campaign advertisements he states “Justice is not blind, although it should be, and the scales of justice are not balanced, but they could be.” The slogan for his campaign became “Together we can balance the scales.”
Since winning the election in November 2016, Judge Cummings has already made efforts to balance the scales. He has declared that he will waive all fees for deserving indigent defendants. The court appoints attorneys because defendants cannot afford to hire an attorney on their own, thus they are unlikely able to afford paying high fees associated with court, mandated programs, and probation. This notion baffled Judge Cummings. How could the court assign counsel, but in the same breath expects defendants to pay an insurmountable number of fees or face further prosecution for failure to pay. He attests that there is overwhelming evidence that fees have been used to underhandedly tax the less fortunate. Judge Cummings plans on making the decision of waiving fees on a case by case basis. However, he guaranteed that if the defendant is going to jail, he will always waive the fees. “I’m not going let them take away your liberty and your money,” said Judge Cummings. Liberty, described Judge Cummings, is the greatest gift that we possess.
Judge Cummings is aware of NCGS 7A-350 which requires every waiver of fees to be reported to the legislator, but he remains steadfast on his decision. So far, he has not received any feedback from his peers about his decision. This is likely because many have not taken notice. However, as the number of fee waivers add up, he believes more people will notice. He is aware that the responses will vary, but he is unconcerned with the possibility of negative responses. “What can they do,” said Judge Cummings smiling, “I’m an elected official for the next four years.” He declared that so long as the law gives him the power to make the choice, he will continue to use that power as he chooses.
I had the opportunity to observe Judge Cummings as he presided over the courtroom. While on the bench, Judge Cummings had a calm and patient demeanor. He had stamina and his passion for his job was evident. Two and a half hours went by before he took a break, and that was more so for his clerk than himself. He was incredibly focused with each task at hand. He listened diligently to each case, paying close attention to each side, and asking probing questions before making his decision. This may sound like the standard duties of a judge, but Judge Cummings was genuine and authentic. He was considerate of everyone’s time in the courtroom, tackling the lighter cases first and leaving the more involved cases for last. In one instance, Judge Cummings accepted the State’s offer for the defendant to plead guilty to a minor drug possession charge and gave him supervised probation and ordered him to complete drug rehabilitation program. The defendant’s attorney asked that the defendant be given time to pay off his court cost because he was searching job so he could provide for his young daughter and enroll in a program to get his Associates degree. After listening to the attorney’s argument, Judge Cummings decided to waive all court costs and fees, allowing the defendant to focus on paying for his drug program. Judge Cummings did not hesitate when making his decision. He only smiled and nodded his head as the Defendant thanked him repeatedly.