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A fast exit strategy for Michael Hecht

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Oct. 31, 2009 at 4:37 pm |
October 31, 2009 8:31 pm

Day four after Judge Michael Hecht’s convictions, and he still hasn’t resigned from the Pierce County Superior Court. A bad omen.

You’d think there’d be some easy, quick way to pry a man off the bench after his criminal conduct has been established under the law’s strictest test: guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But in Washington, getting rid of a felon-judge is more complicated than it ought to be. Pierce County officials may have to force the issue and simply cut off Hecht’s $148,000 salary – for which he’s been doing nothing – once he’s sentenced in three weeks.

One of the problems here is lack of precedent. Washington – unlike, say, New Jersey or Illinois – doesn’t have much experience with criminals on the bench. Hecht’s case is unique. It appears that the state has never before had to deal with a superior court judge who persists in office after being convicted of a felony, in this case threatening to kill a man (in addition to the misdemeanor of hiring a prostitute).

There appear to be three major options. One is the slow, tortuous process – spelled out in the Washington Constitution – of waiting on the state Commission on Judicial Conduct and Supreme Court to act on an ethical complaint. This takes a long time. It’s designed to take a long time. In the meantime, Hecht collects his salary, and a precious seat on the Pierce County court remains useless.

Second option: The Legislature impeaches Hecht. That ought to be a slam dunk if it proves necessary, but lawmakers don’t convene until January. Still, that would be better than waiting on the Commission on Judicial Conduct, which doesn’t plan to even hold a fact-finding hearing until Feb. 22.

Third option: Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy stops paying Hecht upon his sentencing and Gov. Chris Gregoire appoints a replacement. McCarthy appears very interested.
This course would rely on a state law that specifies that “every elective office” shall become vacant upon the incumbent’s “conviction of a felony, or of any offense involving a violation of his or her official oath.”

Sounds pretty clear-cut. But the statute could conceivably be seen as conflicting with the state constitution. The risk is that the state Supreme Court may disagree somewhere down the road if Hecht shamelessly insists on challenging the county’s action.

Given the circumstances, that risk looks worth taking. And while we’re dealing with Hecht, the Legislature ought to offer the voters a constitutional amendment that would at least let the Supreme Court intervene quickly in a scandal like this.

The life of the law is experience, said Oliver Wendell Holmes. Right. This experience has been a bad one.

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