A view of the Thurston County courthouse from the bench

Brett Buckley, Presiding Judge for Thurston County District Court
Brett Buckley, Presiding Judge for Thurston County District Court Courtesy photo

It was a dark and stormy night. ... Actually, it was a bright and sunny October day. Bright, that is until one of three underground cables bringing power to the current Thurston County courthouse failed. After 40 years it gave up the ghost.

The power loss plunged the windowless courtroom into complete darkness until the generator kicked in and powered faint security lights. There was no power to the audio recording system or to lights bright enough to allow any work to proceed. The rather crowded domestic violence calendar came to a complete halt.

Judges, staff, counsel and parties from all three courtrooms gathered in the only courtroom with a modicum of natural light. We triaged the cases and decided which were the most important to go forward that day in the one courtroom with sufficient light. We had natural light but no power for the recording system.

The generator for the courthouse provided enough power for only one outlet. The problem was, that outlet was in a workspace about 150 feet away. There were not enough extension cords available so a staff member made a run to Lowe’s to purchase additional cords.

After an almost two-hour delay, we were finally able to get the triage calendar started. In order to entice parties to stay, the judges bought pizza for everyone. It worked. Serving Justice through Serving Pizza.

This story would make more sense if it was the result of one of our winter storms. It was not caused by wind or ice or snow. It was the result of a deteriorating courthouse infrastructure. Remember, there are still two other buried power cables of the same vintage just waiting to fail. The county has determined that replacement is just too expensive.

This episode is emblematic of the issues we face every day in a courthouse that basically became dysfunctional after 35 years and we are now well past 40 years. I could tell you about our Probation director’s office that has had water pouring through it each of the last two winters. It was determined the leak was through the building air intake system. The county does not have the funds to repair or replace it. We are left with blue tarps and big garbage cans to collect the water.

I haven’t even mentioned the security risks that are created by the courthouse design. We have courtroom doors that don’t lock, PA systems that don’t work, security alarm buttons that aren’t monitored. Just last week a defendant was being escorted through the back halls of Superior Court and crossed paths with a Superior Court jury (violating every principle of courthouse design) and yelled to the jury that the defendant was not guilty. Mistrial anyone?

How about the fact that District Court has four judicial officers and only three courtrooms. We have to take advantage of the kindness of our Superior Court colleagues to allow us to use one of their courtrooms when available. We, of course, can’t give our parties any advance notice of where their case will be heard.

Ever tried parking at the courthouse? At best an aggravation, at worst an exercise in futility.

Accessibility? We are a mile from downtown and only served by infrequent transit service. There are two routes of ingress and egress unless we have an earthquake. In that case Deschutes Parkway gets torn up and we are left with a single route (see Nisqually quake).

The current courthouse opened in 1978 and was built to accommodate the needs of that era. In 1978 there was no Americans with Disabilities Act. It is expensive and difficult to retrofit these buildings to make them accessible. The county population has more than doubled since 1978 and so have court calendars. The 1978 building didn’t even contemplate desk top computers, let alone laptops, pads, phones, etc.

Let’s talk about services we can’t provide because of the inadequacies of the current building. We would love to have drop-in day care for court users (one of the biggest reasons for failure to appear is lack of someone to watch a child) but there is no space for this service. I would love to start live-streaming our District Court calendars to make the judicial system more transparent to citizens but the lack of adequate cabling has stymied our efforts.

We need a new courthouse. The county recognized this need as far back as 2004. An $88 million general obligation bond to fund a new courthouse was turned down by the voters that year. The county is now proposing a $250 million property tax levy lid lift to fund moving the courthouse complex to the former Olympia City Hall site on Plum Street. Failure to act now will only serve to drive up the cost when we finally recognize the inevitability of the need.

Some members of the Bar have stepped up to form a campaign committee to support this project. Anyone interested in helping can contact Trevor Zandell (tzandell@phillipsburgesslaw.com).

This is a once-in-a-generation project that addresses a significant need. In communities across the country, the courthouse is the most tangible representation of the rule of law and the role of our profession as the protector of that treasured principle. Our current courthouse does not adequately represent either of those lofty ideals. This is our opportunity to change that for future generations of Thurston County citizens.

Brett Buckley is the Presiding Judge for Thurston County District Court as well as the judge for Thurston County Mental Health Court and Thurston County Veterans Court. He has been a judicial officer for 25 years.