The courts are open to the public every day, but on Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., the Thurston County courts are inviting everyone to watch the courts at work during our Justice at Work Open House.
Washington Supreme Court Chief Justice Barbara Madsen will keynote a brief opening ceremony. Hearings for Drug Court, Veterans Court and other daily business will be in session throughout the afternoon and, as always, open to the public to watch the proceedings.
Initial hearings for those recently jailed will be held by video appearance at 1:30 p.m. at District Court and 3:30 p.m. at Superior Court. Signs and volunteers will explain what is happening in the courtrooms, and the clerk’s office will demonstrate the use of electronic legal files to the public.
Staffed resource tables will offer information on family court facilitators, public defense, crime victim assistance, interpreters, probation, legal aid, mediation, problem solving courts and more. Transportation will be provided from the courthouse to Family and Juvenile Court in the Mottman Industrial Park, where a tour of juvenile detention will be offered.
In these times of scarce resources, the courts need the public to better understand the justice system. The open house is designed to let you know what is working, where the system is stressed, and what may be at risk.
The Superior Court absorbed budget cuts of more than 20 percent in the past two years — including the loss of eight staff members. Beginning in 2008, the Superior Court eliminated six weeks of jury trials each year to save money. The consequence has been squeezing more criminal trials together in the remaining weeks of the year and delaying civil trials.
Drug courts, mental health courts, veterans courts and family treatment courts have recently evolved to help families, veterans and people with mental illness and substance abuse problems avoid the revolving doors of the courthouse and the jail through rehabilitation. These problem-solving courts have survived despite budget cuts because of the earmarked treatment sales tax paid in Thurston County and competitive federal grants.
The legal community has stepped up to assist court users with access to the courts through the Northwest Justice Project and the Thurston County Volunteer Legal Clinic, with 200 volunteer attorneys helping more than 500 individuals and families last year with serious legal issues. The Thurston County Dispute Resolution Center also partners with the courts through trained volunteer mediators. Learn more about these programs at the open house.
The stand-alone Family and Juvenile Court facility co-locates family court and juvenile court in one facility and brings specialized attention to issues of families and children in the courts.
Family Court is unique to Thurston County and a model for the state.
Most people using the family court do not have attorneys; court facilitators and domestic violence liaisons assist parties in identifying and reviewing legal paperwork. Without these resources, the system would come to a standstill.
More than 90 trained volunteers advocate for abused and neglected children in court through the Court Appointed Special Advocate program, which is supported by state and local funds. Four staff members train and support these dedicated volunteers, who served 247 children in 2009. The advocacy is required by law. Recently, the first reduction in state funding was announced.
Adequate court security is a priority for us. Entry screening for weapons, secure inmate transport to court from the jail, and courtroom security during trials all cost money. However, to assure that people will use the courts, the courts must be safe.
So far, the Thurston County courts have done well — doing more with less. But the courts and staff are stressed. For 2011, the Thurston County commissioners were able to leave the courts’ budgets at the 2010 levels and we extend our sincere gratitude for these decisions. Consideration of the state’s budget is yet to come.
We hope to see you Wednesday at the Thurston County Courthouse, 2000 Lakeridge Drive, Olympia.
Judge Paula Casey presides over the Thurston County Superior Court while Judge Brett Buckley is the presiding judge in Thurston County District Court.