No law allows a North Carolinian to collect money when the state violates his right to a speedy trial.

He would need to convince state courts to allow him to seek damages.

The state’s highest court recently split along party lines in a case addressing that issue.

Arrested in 2002, Frankie Delano Washington waited nearly five years for his trial in Durham County. Washington faced charges of “multiple serious felonies including first-degree burglary, second-degree kidnapping, robbery with a dangerous weapon, and attempted first-degree sex offense,” according to a March 22 state Supreme Court opinion.

A jury eventually convicted Washington. But the state Court of Appeals ruled that he had been forced to wait too long for his day in court. Appellate judges set aside Washington’s convictions “on the ground that he had been deprived of his right to a speedy trial guaranteed by both the state and federal constitutions.”

Several years later, Washington returned to court. His civil lawsuit sought damages from state and local officials for multiple claims, including the speedy-trial violation. This time, the Appeals Court ruled against Washington.

Washington died while waiting for a resolution. His son pursued the case to the state Supreme Court.

The high court split, 4-2, in rejecting the Washington estate’s arguments.

“Where there is a right, there is a remedy,” wrote Justice Richard Dietz for the Republican majority. “This is a foundational principle of every common law legal system, including ours. We have long called it a ‘time-honored maxim.’”

North Carolina addresses this foundational principle through “Corum claims.” Named for the 1992 state Supreme Court decision in Corum v. University of North Carolina, Corum claims allow plaintiffs to seek damages “directly against the state” for constitutional violations.

“[W]e repeatedly recognized Corum claims where the plaintiff had no other forum in which to raise the constitutional violation and receive a remedy,” Dietz wrote. “But this Court has never recognized a Corum claim where the plaintiff had the opportunity to raise a constitutional violation in court, did so and received a remedy, and then sought even more remedies in a second proceeding. Indeed, we have expressly rejected this approach.”

Dietz distinguished Washington’s case from successful Corum claims.

“As a remedy for the State’s violation of his speedy trial rights, the Court of Appeals set aside plaintiff’s criminal convictions,” Dietz wrote. “In this action, plaintiff asserts that vacating his convictions was not enough. He also wants money damages from the State as a second remedy for the constitutional violation.”

Washington’s request “goes too far beyond the ‘critical limitations’ set in Corum,” Dietz concluded.

“Plaintiff already received a powerful remedy for the State’s violation of his rights — he had his criminal convictions permanently set aside,” Dietz added. “That remedy distinguishes this case from every successful Corum case in our jurisprudence, where the plaintiff had no opportunity to go to court and obtain a meaningful remedy at all.”

“In short, plaintiff had an adequate state law remedy, and a separate Corum claim is unavailable,” Dietz concluded.

The high court’s two Democratic justices disagreed.

“As he waited for trial —the shadow of the charges hanging over his head — Mr. Washington tried again and again (and again) to move his case along,” wrote Justice Anita Earls. “As the years passed, he lodged a flurry of motions, asking the trial court to reduce his bond, to compel evidentiary testing, and, finally, to dismiss his charges.”

“But the State stalled,” Earls added. She cited prosecutors withholding key evidence from forensic testing and repeatedly delaying Washington’s trial.

Appellate judges determined that “‘if the State had exercised even the slightest care,’ the delay could have been avoided,” Earls wrote. Washington’s lawsuit “sought accountability” from the state and the Durham district attorney.

“But today, the majority extinguishes his claim and bars him from redressing the panoply of constitutional harms inflicted by the State,” Earls argued. “According to the majority, the dismissal of Mr. Washington’s charges was an adequate remedy for his speedy trial violation.”

“I disagree. The protections afforded by the speedy-trial right ripple beyond the criminal courtroom,” Earls wrote. “And so too do the harms from the right’s violation. When the State drags out a criminal case, it impairs the integrity of those proceedings and the reliability of the result.”

Vacating Washington’s convictions amounted to a “half-measure,” in Earls’ view. “[B]ecause Mr. Washington lacks other avenues to fully redress his constitutional injuries, he may bring a Corum claim.”

Dietz and Earls demonstrated a clear divide over the extent to which courts will permit constitutional claims not spelled out in the written law. It’s a divide worth watching in the future.

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.