August 2017 Bar Bulletin
By Andrew Prazuch
The Washington Supreme Court convenes in a government building in Olympia named “The Temple of Justice.” That’s a pretty aspirational moniker for the mere mortals working there to live up to.
A quick Google search shows no other courthouse in the country actually bears that name. Sure, courts generally are referred to as “temples of justice,” scholarly books are written using that theme, and an occasional derivation on the term creeps into our cultural consciousness (did anyone actually like the movie “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”?). But in our state, we embrace the term Temple of Justice as an important statement about how society wants to see our court system.
A welcoming environment where equal access to justice for all is realized, where the poorest of the poor are on equal footing with the richest of the rich. And in some parts of our state, we have some absolutely beautiful county courthouses that illustrate this concept. Not to mention architecturally stunning courthouses in our own backyard for Seattle Municipal Court, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent, and hopefully soon our new Children & Family Justice Center.
Not much of a temple for our county court in downtown Seattle though. The King County Courthouse, to put it kindly, is about as far from a temple as you can get. While the 1914 edifice itself is quite stately, prominent and somewhat historic (it’s an official King County landmark), the infrastructure is almost dangerously out of date. Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer calls it “a money pit” given the estimated $168 million it would take to replace the electrical, plumbing, heating/cooling and other systems so they meet the building code we require of all other facilities. Pipes, boiler equipment, fans and much more are deteriorating and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to even find replacement parts for outdated equipment.
By comparison, however, the crumbling infrastructure is not the main reason we don’t have a “temple” for the county in downtown Seattle. We can’t have a temple because our leaders have allowed the area around the courthouse to become a magnet for criminal activity — ironically just outside a courthouse’s doors.
Superior Court Presiding Judge Laura Inveen, in her column on page 26 of this month’s Bar Bulletin, outlines the problems in detail and with great compassion. Rocks and wine bottles have been thrown at the building’s windows from the “park” next to the building — and even a bullet was fired from there into a courtroom in January. It is common knowledge that drug dealing occurs in this park with almost no law enforcement, alongside homeless encampments.
In addition, the outside of the building reeks of human urine and feces. And most disturbing, two jurors and a court employee were assaulted recently in just a two-week period — this led to building employees coming forward with multiple similar reports that were previously not shared due to a general frustration by building staff that nothing could be done. We are told that potential jurors ask to be reassigned to the RJC in Kent, rather than deal with these conditions.
This situation is clearly out of control. Judge Inveen and others have begun forcefully speaking out and urging local law enforcement, human services and building maintenance staff to address these problems. While we must take all steps possible to address the underlying societal and individual circumstances that contribute to this problem (e.g., mentally disabled homeless people who have nowhere to go), we can’t accept the consequences of this situation as unfixable.
Some short-term solutions are already under way, thanks to local leaders who have quickly responded to the renewed attention on these issues. Law enforcement from multiple jurisdictions is more visibly present around the perimeter of the courthouse. Building maintenance is cleaning daily the external areas of the facility. A group of government agency officials from the city and county, along with nonprofit service providers, have begun meeting to review long-term solutions.
I understand that one special “ask” is being made of our County Council: to authorize funding to re-open the Fourth Avenue entrance to the courthouse, which was closed about a year ago due to budget cuts. While the savings helped the County’s bottom line at the time, the unintended consequence has been far too many individuals clustering around just one direct entrance into the courthouse. Having that second direct entrance will better disperse the concentration of people around the building and alleviate some of the anxieties caused by having so many people gathered in close proximity waiting to enter through only the Third Avenue doors.
Would you be willing to send a quick email to your County Council member to thank them for the steps taken already by the County to improve the situation around the courthouse and to urge them to re-open the Fourth Avenue entrance? Visit kingcounty.gov/council/councilmembers/find_district.aspx to get your councilmember’s name and email. Just two or three short sentences are all you need to write to ensure our elected officials know we care about this building. I’d appreciate it if you sent me a copy of what you write.
And maybe with all of us insisting on improved conditions, we might just turn our downtown Seattle county courthouse into that temple our local justice system deserves.
Andrew Prazuch is executive director of the King County Bar Association. He can be reached by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or phone (206-267-7061).