As I write this column, it has been two weeks since my unceremonious assumption of the role of presiding judge. The selection and duties of presiding judges for all levels of Washington courts are governed by court rule — GR 29. Each court is required to elect a PJ for a minimum of a two-year term. The rule sets out the general responsibilities and duties. A well-thought-out rule, it seeks to acknowledge the importance of the administration of the court, to ensure the independence of the court from the other branches of government, and instill authority in the PJ over his or her colleagues in certain areas.
When agreeing to run (needless to say, it was not hotly contested), I overlooked the fact that the rule actually sets forth criteria for the job. It provides that the selection should be based upon:
1. Management and administrative ability;
2. Interest in serving in the position;
3. Experience and familiarity with a variety of trial court assignments; and
4. Ability to motivate and educate other judicial officers and court personnel.
I particularly appreciate the “ability to motivate” criterion. I assume that is in recognition of the fact that we are 53 independently elected officials, so the authority we have over colleagues must in large part be “motivational.” On the other hand, in adopting the rule, the state Supreme Court includes in subsection (h) an “oversight of judicial officers” provision, with the potential of remedial action, and if “not successful,” a mandate to refer the matter to the Judicial Conduct Commission. That is a path I expect never to have to take during my tenure. I hope to be sufficiently motivational.
As with the job of trial court judge, the job of PJ requires one to be an adaptable multi-tasker, able to deal with the mundane and the complex, without skipping a beat. We need to be jacks of all trades, and masters of some. On any given day, a Superior Court judge may preside over a homicide sentencing, a complex commercial trial, and end with a small claims appeal from District Court. The next day may involve a pro se dissolution trial with non-English-speaking parties, each requiring interpreters in different languages.
The presiding judge has similar competing demands, including the need to be flexible. I never know what a given day will bring. Examples of issues I worked with today include proposed new legislation, labor negotiations and other employment matters, budget, security, disgruntled litigants, and court committee assignments.
What has surprised me the most is how much of my work touches upon the court’s facilities — the use and operation of the buildings in which the court operates. Superior Court is a tenant of four county buildings — the King County Courthouse, the Maleng Regional Justice Center, the Youth Services Center, and the Involuntary Treatment Act Court at Harborview Medical Center.
Our landlord is King County’s Facilities and Maintenance Division, and like any tenant we are charged rent for the use and maintenance of each of these buildings. This includes the cost to move a piece of furniture or even hang a picture on the wall. We have a cordial relationship with our landlord and are usually successful in working cooperatively.
In my first two weeks, I dealt with issues relating to each of the court’s buildings. Perhaps one of the most disturbing was being alerted to a high-caliber bullet that had pierced a second-floor chambers window, and traveled through two offices before being halted in the wall — at approximately head level. In addition to discussions with security, it was necessary to consider alternatives to the existing windows and financing options.
Other facility issues at the courthouse this week included seeking improvements to the maintenance and security of the Third Avenue entrance, especially important now that the County Council closed the Fourth Avenue entrance due to budgetary constraints. Electrical improvements in the courthouse are also in the works, which require a carefully thought out plan to alleviate disruption of court proceedings.
With respect to the ITA Court, it is bursting at the seams. What was initially designed for one judicial officer now houses two, and all of the ancillary staff and lawyers that go with an ever-increasing caseload. With a long-term plan to move the entire facility to a remodeled Harborview Hall, the interim plan includes improvements to the existing space. Our judicial officers and staff have been extremely patient while this plays out.
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