Politics & Government

'Access to justice is in danger'

Washington's courts are suffering through the recession, and justice might be suffering, too.

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Barbara Madsen said during a meeting this week with The Olympian’s editorial board that she and other court officers are trying to work more closely with lawmakers to advocate for better funding, which is being cut during the state’s financial crisis.

Madsen said efforts to win a new stream of funding for courts failed during the most recent legislative session, “but we have been engaged. So that’s a new strategy. We’re going to talk to the Legislature. We’re going to be partners to the extent that it’s appropriate to be partners, and not give up.”

Madsen and fellow jurists fear that the budget lawmakers are negotiating this week in special session could include another cut of perhaps $500,000 in the court’s administrative functions.

Already, they say, their system is under stress to keep judges up to speed on legal issues and ethics, and a range of items – including guardianship programs and judicial training – is under threat of cuts.

“I recommended no further cuts,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, said in an interview separate from the editorial board. “I really believe that access to justice is in danger from what we’ve done already.”

Pedersen said he hasn’t seen a big shift in the court’s posture on funding and thinks former Chief Justice Gerry Alexander was engaged on budget matters, too. But where Alexander sought more pay for jurors, Madsen dropped that as a priority after a pilot program found pay was not a key motivator for serving on juries.

The new chief justice also wants to see the state court system take a more regional approach to doing its business. This might mean folding small city operations into larger, county district courts, which offers efficiencies and a chance for better professionalism in the courts.

“Our goal is to have a professional bench so people who choose to be judges are judges, and they are not torn in their loyalties,” Madsen said.

But Madsen, herself a former Seattle Municipal Court judge, and her colleagues on Washington’s higher and lower courts have been unable to win legislative approval to merge courts in recent years.

And their interim proposal – to require that all municipal court judges be elected – died this year in the House after passing the Senate on a 37-11 vote.

Senate Bill 6686 would have been a step “to professionalize the practice of being a judge,” Madsen said. By letting governments hire judges, there is a risk that the judge aligns his or her interest with the finances of the city, which leads to practices “that may not be as just,” she said.

The Association of Washington Cities and local government officers objected to the bill during legislative hearings. Among the arguments raised: Some courts are small and operate on a part-time basis, and making appointments allows cities to make choices based on a candidate’s sensitivity to what a city can afford.

Rep. Pedersen said he supported the bill but could not get a majority to support it in committee.

One problem was that small cities needing part-time judges faced election costs. A second problem, he said, is “there is profound ambivalence with the election of judges. We have a lot of people who believe that judges should not be elected and that (electing them) leads to bad results,” Pedersen said.

Some members of Pederson’s committee favor a system of appointing judges, then requiring them to stand for “retention” elections.

“Unless something dramatic changes, I don’t see us going where the court system wants us to go,” he said.

Madsen did not single out a local court for criticism. But she told a story about an appointed judge in an unnamed city who objected on ethical grounds to being told to charge parties that sought continuances for cases. The judge later was told that when his contract expired, he could put in his application with others, Madsen said.

Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Wickham, who also met with the editorial board, said he has no evidence of problems with the appointed judges of Tumwater, Tenino or Yelm.

But State Courts Administrator Jeff Hall said that the wording of some applications for small-town judicial appointments has actually mentioned the financial implications of imposing jail or appointing defense counsel.

The concerns about small courts are one piece of the larger, ongoing concern about public financial support for the state court system. Madsen said lawmakers have provided extra money in recent years to help courts deal with higher caseloads caused by the “Becca Law,” which lets family courts detain truant and runaway youths, and with other costs borne by counties for interpreters.

But counties pick up about 90 percent of the costs of running Superior and district courts, and criminal justice spending is about 70 percent of county budgets.

In Thurston County, the financial squeeze made worse by the recession has meant deep cuts to the courts, including eliminating some support staffers and doing fewer civil trials. Wickham said Superior Court cuts totaled 17 percent last year, or $779,000.

This has meant more administrative duties for judges, less travel to obtain education on emerging legal issues, less hiring of judges pro tem to cover absent judges, and longer waits for jury trials for litigants.

“We took six weeks off the books this year for jury trials,” Wickham said.

And with the shortage of time for jury trials, Madsen said, there has been a shift of more cases into private mediation.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688