Many King County lawyers pride themselves on their knowledge of the how the courts operate in the local legal community: which judges are best for complex jury trials; which judges have idiosyncrasies in their courtrooms; which judges are well prepared and which are not.
But this knowledge only scratches the surface of the operation of King County Superior Court. To fully understand and appreciate the complexity of the largest bench in the Pacific Northwest, one needs to realize that it all comes together under the leadership of one person: Paul Sherfey, chief administrative officer for King County Superior Court.
Sherfey’s role is that of “CEO” for Superior Court. He reports to the 53 independently elected judges and, following the policies and rules they adopt, he is responsible for deploying the 384 employees of the court and its $56-million annual budget to ensure the effective, fair and impartial administration of justice in King County. He navigates the challenging waters of inter-governmental relations with other arms of King County government, which include cooperation with the county executive and legislative branches while vigorously defending and promoting the judiciary as a co-equal branch with the others.
Court of Appeals Judge Michael Trickey, formerly King County Superior Court presiding judge, attests to this ability to navigate: “Paul always focused on the needs of the court and was a tireless and articulate advocate for the court.” He works as a trusted partner with each presiding judge. Former Presiding Judge Richard McDermott notes that “Paul is amazing. He works with every presiding judge, adapts to our own unique styles and priorities, and still is able to do a superb job as CAO of a very complex and large court.”
Sherfey’s path to chief administrative officer began in the small eastern Washington town of Colfax, population today of 2,805. His parents instilled a creed of living “simply, humbly and honestly,” according to Sherfey, which led to a strong work ethic and commitment to serving others. He attended Gonzaga University for undergraduate studies and, while there, was inspired to pursue his law degree at the University of Washington.
While he set out believing his passion would be subjects such as constitutional law, he soon found he loved tax, contract and corporate law. It was not until being admitted to the bar in 1978 that he began some post-graduation soul searching about the pros and cons of work in corporate law or shifting his focus to join a Trappist monastery.
Deciding being a Trappist monk offered less challenge, Sherfey accepted a corporate position with Battelle-Northwest, a science and technology research company with an office then in the Tri-Cities. His work there included negotiating contracts and employment law, and eventually he found himself moving into a management role.
He would eventually get to know Jan Michaels, who in the 1980s had become King County clerk and had sought out Sherfey to be her deputy. After Michaels left to become executive director of the Washington State Bar Association, Sherfey succeeded her as county clerk in 1998. In 2000, the judges created the position of chief administrative officer, in which he has served for the past 16 years.
His tenure with the Court has been exceptional and includes a very diverse portfolio of responsibilities: Sherfey leads the judiciary’s work in case management, budgets, personnel, facilities and technology. And for all this, he must build constituencies and champions within the bench to advance these initiatives.
One of the first achievements during Sherfey’s tenure was the creation of King County’s Drug Court. The program works to stop recidivism and has proven to be a less expensive way to treat addiction than jail terms. According to King County officials, “a July 2013 report found reductions in crime related to [Drug Court] program participation translated into a net benefit to taxpayers of $22,000 per participant, or a $4 return for every $1 invested.”
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