This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.
The resignation of Judge Michael Hecht Monday didn’t just rid Pierce County Superior Court of a malodorous scandal. It quickly exposed serious fault lines in county government.
A day after Hecht vacated Department 9 – his seat on the bench – the County Council surprised nearly everyone by voting unanimously to eliminate the seat. County Executive Pat McCarthy hadn’t been in the loop; she didn’t hear about the action until after it had happened.
Fault No. 1: Mutual resentment between the county’s executive and legislative branches. McCarthy is a Democrat and the council is Republican-dominated, but this doesn’t seem to be an entirely partisan thing: The council Democrats were part of that unanimous vote.
Some council members have long complained that McCarthy doesn’t work well with them, doesn’t communicate well, etc. Their elimination of Department 9 was clearly driven by deep worries about the county’s dire financial straits. But the way they did it looks a lot like a snub of McCarthy.
Fault No. 2: A split between county Prosecutor Mark Lindquist and both the council and the Superior Court bench. Lindquist has been hesitant to criticize the council, but he made it clear Tuesday that he was unhappy about the loss of Department 9. He’s been working with the bench – successfully, but with some frustrations – to reduce the backlog of criminal cases. The loss of a judge would make that task harder, although Lindquist is optimistic about reaching a cooperative solution.
Fault No. 3: Everybody vs. the Superior Court. The court consists of 21 elected judges acutely conscious of the judiciary’s constitutional independence. Its critics complain that at least some of the judges don’t see themselves as part of a team dedicated to cutting costs and streamlining the handling of cases. The judges tend to bristle at what they see as encroachments on their autonomy.
Their resistance to McCarthy’s plan to eliminate their double medical coverage hasn’t helped matters.
These long-simmering tensions – all exacerbated by the county’s fiscal crisis – came to a head when Hecht stepped down. But the County Council reacted badly when it got rid of Department 9.
There was no need to pounce Tuesday without notice or hearings. Gov. Chris Gregoire would need many weeks to appoint a new judge. This should have been a far more deliberate decision.
The elimination of the position can’t help but hurt efforts to ensure timely justice for both accused criminals and ordinary litigants.
That criminal backlog may be coming down, but civil and domestic disputes – lawsuits, child custody fights, etc. – are being inexcusably delayed. The trends aren’t good. In 2003, for example, the court administration was unable to find a courtroom on any given day for roughly half of trial-ready civil cases, on average. Now three-quarters are getting bumped.
In the justice system, delays feed on themselves. Criminals feel little pressure to plead guilty if trials are hard to schedule. Civil defendants feel little pressure to settle.
Eliminating a seat on the bench is a big step in the wrong direction. County officials – including judges – must work together on the budget. The County Council must find drastic economies. But the last thing on the chopping block should be citizens’ access to justice.