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The County Council killed that court seat far too hastily

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Nov. 12, 2009 at 8:01 pm with No Comments »
November 12, 2009 6:04 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

The Pierce County Council’s determination to get rid of a Superior Court seat is looking less wise by the day.

Last week, after Judge Michael Hecht resigned from the court’s Department 9, the council quickly voted to dismantle the entire department. It was an emergency ordinance, adopted unanimously without hearing or opportunity for outside questioning.

A less hasty process would have turned up a serious problem: The action may be flat illegal. Presiding Judge Bryan Chushcoff has raised this possibility, as has the Tacoma-Pierce County Bar Association President David Snell and Doug Vanscoy, the chief civil deputy of the county prosecutor’s office.

The chief legal concern is that Department 9 was created by the Legislature, and the county government – a creature of the state government – may well have no authority to undo that legislative act. This is a Civics 201 kind of question that would occur to any good attorney specializing in local government. An issue so serious shouldn’t be arising after the fact; the County Council should have first bothered to explore the implications of what it was doing.

The decision has already caught the attention of state officials. Gov. Chris Gregoire’s senior counsel, Marty Loesch, says Pierce County may have big budget problems, “but we don’t want counties all over the state to start de-funding judge positions.” Historically, counties have pleaded with the Legislature to give them more judgeships; there’s not much precedent for a county council trying to get rid of one.

This isn’t just a matter of legal principle. There’s a reason counties normally covet more court departments. Trial capacity or the lack thereof has real consequences for real people.

If the system can’t put away enough violent gang members, for example, neighborhoods remain terrorized by criminals. If a citizen is badly injured in an auto accident, a scarcity of courtrooms can help an insurance company wear down the victim with delays.

County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist notes that more than 95 percent of criminal cases are settled out of court with plea bargains; the other 3 to 5 percent are settled in trials. But defendants aren’t in any hurry to offer pleas if they perceive that prosecutors won’t be able to get into a courtroom anytime soon. Often, he says, the defendant waits until the day of trial before signing the offered deal.

And in Pierce County – despite some impressive recent progress in cutting down criminal backlogs – both criminal and civil cases often take far too long time to reach the point of trial, frequently getting bumped on the very day they were to begin. Attorneys, witnesses and jurors often wind up coming to the courthouse only to be sent home, time after time.

“It undermines faith in the justice system,” says Lindquist.

The wheels of justice system have many spokes, but the courtrooms are the hubs that make them turn. The County Council should reconsider this rushed and very possibly illegal budget decision.

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