Elon Poll: North Carolinians divided on fairness in the courts

North Carolinians believe that race and socioeconomic status play a role in the state courts treat people.

According to the latest Elon University Poll, N.C. residents 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 and more than half of North Carolinians 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.

This data comes from questions the North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice suggested.Chief Justice Mark Martin of the Supreme Court of North Carolina convened the independent commission convened earlier this year. Among the members is Luke Bierman, dean of the Elon University School of Law.

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

In general, North Carolinians showed confidence in the court systems, with 40 percent responding that, as a whole, people usually or always receive a fair outcome in their dealings with the courts but when asked about various groups, the confidence changed.

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 and 75 percent said they believe judges' decisions are influenced as well by the fact they must run for election.

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.

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%

North Carolina state courts: 66%

Local public schools: 66%

U.S. Supreme Court: 65%

Federal government: 37%

The media: 36%

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 while only 22 percent of blacks agreed.

If there was one institution that could unite Republicans and Democrats, it was the media, an institution distrusted by a 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" though it was still just 10 percent total.

The Elon University Poll collected this data through a live-caller, survey of 1,234 residents from 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.