On March 19–20, our beloved Judge William Downing presided over his last YMCA Mock Trials as a sitting judge. For years, he has created the topical, slightly crazy fact patterns used by generations (at least by the definition of a high school career) of high school students across Washington. He delights in inspiring young men and women to respect the legal profession and maybe even pursue a career in law. Our community is losing a giant this year as Judge Downing retires.
Judge Downing distinguished himself as a prosecutor handling the Wah Mee massacre case in 1983 and joined our bench in 1989. Throughout his career he has been interested in the relationships among the bench, bar and press, serving as chair of the Bench Bar Press Liaison Committee (the “Fire Brigade”) since 1999.
As a judge, he has handled everything from the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (he got it right), a national class action suit by Nordstrom employees, the recall of school board members, and death penalty trials. In 2005, he was named Judge of the Year by the Washington State Bar Association and received KCBA’s Outstanding Judge award in 2006.
A trial judge’s trial judge, Judge Downing’s expertise, experience, kindness and self-deprecating sense of humor will be missed by all of us when he departs the bench at the end of this year.
Today, I am using part of my column to salute some of the judges who will be leaving the Court at the end of their terms this year. Since there is still some uncertainty about the subject remaining, I will save several more for next month’s column. As presiding judge, the prospect of welcoming half a dozen or so new judges while at the same time saying goodbye to some of our lions is daunting. We have already seen a great deal of turnover, so brace yourselves for more judges whose names you do not recognize. In time, this generation will earn the accolades of those leaving us this year.
A judge of my own vintage who will be departing is Judge Bruce Heller, who was appointed to the bench in 2007. Judge Heller’s bread and butter is a good civil trial. He brought to the Court a rich background in labor and employment law and generously shared it with the Court on our Personnel Committee and Executive Committee. I know we will miss his wisdom and sound advice. All of us will miss his dry sense of humor and ability to tell a good story. Judge Heller plans to join Judicial Dispute Resolution in early 2017.
Judge Richard Eadie is leaving the Court this year after more than 20 years on our bench. Judge Eadie served as presiding judge from 2002–05 — a record in the modern times of our Court. I can attest that four years in this job would grind the good nature out of most anyone; but not Judge Eadie. He remains kind, thoughtful and as committed to justice as ever. As if his stint as PJ was not enough, he also served as president of the National Conference of Metropolitan Courts. My respect for Judge Eadie was enhanced even more when he told me that he would extend his stay in Unified Family Court and retire from a position where he influences the lives of children and families. He will be missed.
As I say, we expect in the neighborhood of six retirements. If you are interested in filing for any position, the week for in-person or online filing is May 16–20. Candidates must be under 75, a qualified Washington voter, and be admitted to practice law in Washington. The filing fee is $1,626.18 — one percent of the annual salary.
Just as the deadline for this column arrived, we received word from the County Executive’s Office that our “target reduction” (i.e., budget cut) for the 2017–18 biennium is $4.8 million, or just over 5 percent of our annual budget. This is an enormous cut, but in line with cuts expected of all other parts of the County’s justice system, including $7.8 million to the Sheriff’s Office, $5 million to the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and $12 million in cuts to the jail. The math was fair, if unrelenting. We are each being asked to take our share of a yawning $50-million shortfall in King County’s General Fund.
What does 5 percent of the Court’s budget look like? We are still far from identifying what cuts we can take. But by way of scale, we could eliminate all 12 of our commissioners and save $4.8 million. We could eliminate 22 of our 48 juvenile probation counselors and save $4.8 million. Even if we eliminated our entire Family Court Services Department, we would not save even $4.2 million.
We’ve already lost 56 FTEs since 2009. It is hard to know whether we can reach the target set by the County Executive and still provide statutorily and constitutionally mandated services. Among the services that are not legally mandated are those provided to assist pro se parties, such as facilitators and early resolution case managers. And yet, I cannot imagine our community would want to see us give them up.
Why are we even in this position? It is certainly not the fault of our County Executive or County Council. They know cuts like this are worse than bad public policy. The problem is, we’re broke.
It’s hard to understand how that could be when we see construction cranes all over Seattle and property values continuing to rise. Washington’s antiquated tax structure does not allow counties to reap benefits from economic booms like this. Our revenues are capped at 1 percent of property values, plus population growth and new construction, which started out as a Timothy Eyman initiative. This sets up a structural deficit, because COLAs have been running in the 2-percent range.
In addition to property taxes, counties are funded by sales taxes. As communities become wealthier, a smaller share of people’s expenditures goes to goods as opposed to services. We are well aware of the rising incomes generated by the tech sector. When people spend money on yoga and doggie daycares rather than treadmills and leashes, the County reaps less in taxes.
All of this means that in Washington a huge proportion of public services — the entire criminal justice system, for example — is paid for by counties, based on a tax structure that dates from the 1930s. If the King County bar wants to see our justice system continue to function at a reasonable level, it is time to engage with our legislative delegation and tell them that while they are working at reforming school levies next year, it is time to restructure how counties are financed in this state.
Because if you think 2017–18 looks bad, just wait until the biennium after that.
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