State should have acted on municipal court issue

April 15, 2010 

One of the missed opportunities in the 2010 legislative session was a bill to require that all municipal court judges be elected.

This state, unlike others, has a history of electing judges. We elect our nine Supreme Court justices, along with the 22 appellate, 188 superior and hundreds of district court judges. But there are dozens of municipal court judges in this state — Yelm, Tumwater and Tenino, for example — where the judges are appointed. Their allegiance is to the mayor or city council, not the voters.

Supreme Court Justice Barbara Madsen, with the support of the district and municipal court judges association, pressed the Legislature to pass Substitute Senate Bill 6686. The bill would require that municipal court judges be elected by the people, not appointed by the mayor or council. The measure passed the Senate 37-11 but died in the House Judiciary Committee.

That’s unfortunate.

Jeff Hall, state courts administrator, notes that when the bill was before the Senate Judiciary Committee, opponents said they have a screening process to select the best possible person to serve as an appointed judge. They provided sample questions they use in the judicial screening process.

But a couple of those questions were telling, Hall said. Judicial candidates were asked whether they understood that sentencing offenders to jail versus an alternative sentence would have a direct effect on the city budget. Another question for candidates was whether they were aware that appointing attorneys for indigent clients also had budgetary implications for the city.

The message sent to those seeking the judicial appointment was clear: dollars are more important than the fair administration of justice.

Justice Madsen said she knows of one case in this state where city officials encouraged an appointed judge to start charging a fee when cases were granted a continuance. The judge objected on ethical grounds. The judge was reminded he served at the pleasure of city administrators and that he would be welcome to apply for his job the next time it came up for appointment.

Those kinds of internal pressures — mostly monetary pressures — have no place in the judicial system. The city of Tumwater has an organization chart on its Web site showing the municipal court judge is directly accountable to the residents of the city, along with the mayor and members of the City Council.

That’s a false representation. The mayor appoints the municipal court judge with confirmation by the council. Contrary to the organization chart, the judge is not directly accountable to voters. To get rid of a judge, voters would have to get rid of a mayor with the hopes that a new mayor might then pick a new judge.

In making the case for direct election of municipal court judges, former Chief Justice Gerry Alexander noted that the Supreme Court and the Board for Judicial Administration have taken the position for the past decade that all judges should be elected. It’s part of the effort by judges to move to regional courts where all cases go through one court, rather than having different courts for different jurisdictions. Coupled with increased judicial training, the move will lead to a more professional and consistent judiciary.

The bill was carefully crafted to overcome the objection of city officials who fought to retain the power to appoint the judges. For example, the bill allows cities to contract with other cities that have elected judges and even allows attorneys who live in other counties to run for municipal court judge.

City lobbyists, who successfully killed the bill in the House Judiciary Committee, argued that the people who appoint the judge are accountable to the public. But that’s an unnecessary layer of management between the judge and voters.

City officials also argued that judicial elections would come down to a popularity contest with the most importance given to name recognition and the amount of money that the candidate could raise. Doesn’t the same hold true for municipal elections for mayor and city council seats?

Simply put, cities don’t want to give up their appointment authority. It’s a power grab. That’s unfortunate because judges should be directly accountable to voters, and not be subjected to a budgetary squeeze imposed on them by their bosses at city hall.

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