By the time you read this column, I will have sat down with three of our hardworking and highly skilled court commissioners to tell them that as of January 1 they are out of a job. We are laying them off because we have been asked to cut our budget by more than 5 percent.
As hard as these conversations will have been, it has been pointed out that the administrative side of our Court has already had 60 layoff conversations with staff members since 2000. King County’s chronic budget deficits have been slowly strangling our justice system and now we are gasping for air.
Just as our staff had to take on new duties as their colleagues disappeared, so too will the judges take on new duties. For example, lawyers might encounter a judge assigned for a year or two to sit in the ex parte department. In all likelihood, judges will be assigned to our dependency motions calendars (where we manage cases involving children who have been abused or neglected while their parents try to remedy their deficiencies in order to reunify the family). We are very mindful that the same judicial officer needs to preside in dependencies for at least two years in order to come to know all the players, the available services and the families, and we do not intend to change that.
Similarly, we know that our commissioners have tremendous knowledge of family law, probate, guardianships and so on, and that a judge needs to develop his or her expertise in these areas as well. It is important for all of us — the Court and the legal community — to remember that ultimately this is the Court’s work and in a small county one judge would do it all.
Often I am asked how the judges can possibly have the capacity to take on additional work. Well, the truth is that civil and criminal filings have dropped substantially. The criminal filings dropped partly because the crime rate went down (and now it appears to be rising again) and because the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office elected to file most drug charges as misdemeanors in District Court. We do not know why civil filings are down, especially because they are down in District Court even as its jurisdictional limit has increased. For whatever reason, increasingly people are not turning to our Court to resolve differences.
Many years ago the County Council, Executive Office and the Superior Court agreed upon a formula for determining how many judges the County requires. Over the years, the agreement has been amended as our case processing systems have evolved. Over the past nine months that agreement was revised again to account for assigning judges to administrative or specialty positions that allowed us to provide better service to the public. In addition, taking drug cases out of Superior Court left us with a whole lot of violent cases, which require more time, energy and fortitude to try. And yet, it was undeniable that the drop in filing dictated employing fewer judicial officers.
After we renegotiated the formula in the “Protocol Agreement,” we determined that we were two seats “over-judged.” However, the Council and the Executive expect the Court to hurt along with other county offices that rely on the General Fund. For this reason, we decided to lay off three commissioners.
The justice system is hurt by the cuts demanded this year. All of the criminal justice entities have been asked to make similar 5-percent cuts. If, for example, the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office took its allocated cut, some 20 lawyers would have to be laid off. A similar number of public defenders would have to go, too. Our ability to run the criminal justice system would be seriously hampered with insufficient lawyers to try the cases.
Similarly, the jail has been asked to cut $12 million from its budget. This is a mind-boggling number, and the jail can make cuts of this magnitude only if, for example, the work release operation were closed and most of the defendants were transferred to secure detention. While at first blush it sounds illogical to anticipate savings by making this change, the fact is that the existing work release facility is located on the 10th floor of the downtown courthouse and is almost medieval compared to a modern jail. It costs a lot more to run because it takes more corrections officers to keep everyone safe in all the nooks and crannies.
And yet, think of the human cost of eliminating work release! It is not an overstatement to say that families will become homeless as a result of their breadwinners no longer being able to support them. Judges must sentence repeat drunk drivers to jail terms; they have no discretion to order electronic home detention. So, the reality is that we are facing the prospect of not allowing criminal defendants to keep their jobs and all the terrible social consequences that will result.
As I have said many times in this column, we will continue to shrink our justice system until we finally decide as a state that we need to fund it differently. If the Legislature does not allow counties to tax themselves above the 1-percent cap set originally through an Eyman initiative, our Court will have to start re-examining how we allocate family law work. We will need to cut deeply into our family law commissioner ranks. It will be imperative for the King County legal community to support an effort to allow counties to tax themselves or else we will eviscerate one of the finest justice systems in the United States.
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