Political Buzz

Talking WA politics.

NOTICE: Political Buzz has moved.

With the launch of our new website, we've moved Political Buzz.
Visit the new section.

AG opinion: Pierce council can’t eliminate Superior Court seat

Post by David Wickert on Feb. 5, 2010 at 5:24 pm |
February 5, 2010 5:24 pm

The state Attorney General’s Office has concluded the Pierce County Council did not have the legal authority to eliminate the Superior Court seat held by Judge Michael Hecht.

In an opinion issued today, Attorney General Rob McKenna and Deputy Solicitor General Jeffrey Even wrote that the state constitution authorizes the Legislature to direct the number of judges for each superior court.

“A county legislative authority desiring to reduce that number may work with the Legislature to do so through a statutory amendment,” the opinion states.

You can download a PDF copy of the opinion here.

A spokesman for Gov. Chris Gregoire said she will proceed with filling the post. Because there are six vacant superior court seats throughout the state at the moment, it may be six months before the governor receives recommendations for appointments from her legal counsel, according to spokesman Biet Shelton.

The County Council eliminated funding for Hecht’s seat in November, just a day after the judge announced his resignation. The council cited the need for budget flexibility.

The county prosecuting attorney’s office, County Executive Pat McCarthy and the local bar association claimed the move was illegal. State Court Administrator Jeff Hall requested the attorney general’s opinion.

The council issued a statement this afternoon saying that “if Pierce county must reinstate its 22nd Superior Court judge, the County Council believes the state of Washington should help cover the cost.” In the statement Chairman Roger Bush, R-Graham, said the state is imposing an unfunded mandate on the county.

The state already pays half of the salaries of Superior Court judges. It also pays for judges’ healthcare benefits.

“The money we saved from eliminating that seat has already been used on other needs in Superior Court,” Bush said. “At this point, it will be a struggle to fund a 22nd judge.”

You can read the council’s full statement below.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Feb. 5, 2010

If Pierce County must reinstate its 22nd Superior Court judge, the County Council believes the state of Washington should help cover the cost.

Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna today issued an opinion against the council’s decision last fall to eliminate former Judge Michael Hecht’s vacant seat to save money in the 2009 and 2010 county budgets. The carefully worded, six-page opinion narrowly concludes that only the state legislature can set the number of judges in each county’s superior court, but its length acknowledges the complexity of the issue and it states that the council used “thoughtful analysis” in making its case.

“I’m glad that the attorney general took such care in considering this difficult issue,” Council Chair Roger Bush said. “Even though he ultimately decided against us, I don’t think the door is closed to us receiving some help from the state as we try to fill our budgetary obligations.”

By requiring that Superior Court return to 22 judges, Bush said the state is imposing an unfunded mandate on the county.

“The money we saved from eliminating that seat has already been used on other needs in Superior Court,” Bush said. “At this point, it will be a struggle to fund a 22nd judge.”

In the meantime, the council will begin working with Superior Court to reinstate the 22nd judgeship while continuing to seek long-sought data from the court on its performance in managing felony cases.

CONTACT: Brad Chatfield, Council Communications Manager, 253-798-6626

*
The News Tribune now uses Facebook commenting on selected blogs. See editor's column for more details. Commenters are expected to abide by terms of service for Facebook as well as commenting rules for thenewstribune.com. Report violators to webmaster@thenewstribune.com.