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Bar association may sue Pierce County Council over court seat

Post by David Wickert on Nov. 17, 2009 at 11:23 am |
November 17, 2009 11:23 am

The Tacoma/Pierce County Bar Association is considering legal action against the County Council over its decision to eliminate a Superior Court seat.

The association’s Board of Trustees voted unanimously this morning to “analyze our legal options with regard to the council,” according to President David Snell.

That doesn’t mean a lawsuit is imminent. Snell said the association hopes to speak with council members to “figure out a win-win situation.”

“We’re not saying we’re going to sue,” Snell said after the meeting. “We’re saying we’re looking at that as well as other options like opening a dialogue about what their intentions are.”

The move comes a day after County Executive Pat McCarthy vetoed the council’s Nov. 3 vote to eliminate the Superior Court seat previously held by Judge Michael Hecht. Hecht resigned following his conviction for felony harassment and paying a man for sex.

Pierce County has 22 Superior Court judges, whose salaries are split between the county and the state. Two weeks ago the council voted unanimously to eliminate Hecht’s post, citing the need for flexibility at a time of tight budgets.

The county prosecuting attorney’s office later issued an opinion stating the council had exceeded its authority. The opinion concluded that the court seat was created by the Legislature and can only be dissolved by the Legislature. It also concluded that the budget ordinance the council used was not the proper means to eliminate the post.

McCarthy cited the same reasoning in vetoing the measure yesterday.

Snell said the veto “only goes so far.” The council can override the veto. And the fate of the court seat in 2010 remains up in the air. The council stipulated in its 2010 budget includes salary and benefits for only 21 Superior Court departments.

Snell said the prosecuting attorney’s opinion makes it clear the council doesn’t have the authority to eliminate the court seat. And he thinks the council is guilty of micromanaging Superior Court.

He said the court has been chronically underfunded, and he thinks “most of our judges are working their tails of with the limited resources they have.” The judges, it’s worth noting, are members of the bar association.

Snell wants to speak with council members over the next month to resolve the issue. In the meantime, he said he’ll ask Gov. Chris Gregoire to continue searching for a replacement for Hecht.

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