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Pierce council asks Gregoire not to fill Superior Court seat

Post by David Wickert on Dec. 1, 2009 at 3:11 pm |
December 2, 2009 9:11 am

Updated below with more comment from the governor’s office

The Pierce County Council has asked Gov. Chris Gregoire not to fill the Superior Court seat recently vacated by Judge Michael Hecht.

In a letter dated Monday, the council lays out its legal argument that its decision to eliminate the court seat is legal, despite arguments to the contrary by the local prosecuting attorney’s office, County Executive Pat McCarthy and the local bar association.

In the letter (you can download a PDF copy here), council Chairman Roger Bush, R-Graham, quotes a state law authorizing Pierce County to have no more than 24 Superior Court judges. Bush argues that the law gives the council discretion to determine the exact number of positions.

“The decision to authorize a judicial position must take into account the county’s need as well as its ability to fund that position,” Bush wrote (the salaries of Superior Court judges are split between the county and the state).

“The question is whether the state legislature, in recognizing and granting the authority to local legislative bodies to authorize new judicial positions, intended that such decision would be irreversible, that it would remain in place in perpetuity,” he wrote. “We believe that was not the intent…”

Bush asked the governor “that no action be taken appointing an individual to a judicial position on the Pierce County Superior Court until after the Council has undertaken a thorough fiscal analysis after the first quarter reports and after the conclusion of the 2010 legislative session.”

Last month the council voted to eliminate the Superior Court seat a day after Hecht announced he was resigning. Council members cited the need for flexibility at a time of tight budgets.

The decision subsequently was criticized as illegal by the prosecuting attorney’s office, which found the council didn’t have the authority to eliminate the court seat. McCarthy and the Tacoma-Pierce County Bar Association also said the move was illegal, and the association has threatened to sue the council.

In addition to the governor, the council sent Monday’s letter to Attorney General Rob McKenna, Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Lindquist, the bar association and Pierce County’s state legislators, among others.

Update: The governor’s office sent a letter to the legal community on Nov. 18 seeking applications to fill the Pierce County Superior Court seat. Applications are due Jan. 1. Here’s a PDF copy.

Update 2: I asked Gregoire spokesman Glenn Kuper if the governor planned to proceed with filling the Pierce County Superior court seat. Here’s what he said: “The process for filling the vacancy will take a couple of months. During that time, the Governor’s counsel will review the legal issues that have been raised.”

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