December 2013 Bar Bulletin
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December 2013 Bar Bulletin

Demystifying Superior Court Trial Assignments

By Judge Susan Craighead


Call it our Situation Room. We meet in a windowless conference room deep in the bowels of the King County Courthouse. On a giant screen, we beam in key judges and staff from the other courthouses. It is at this meeting at 1 p.m. every Thursday that we determine which civil trials will start the following Monday and which will be placed on the dreaded "standby" list.

Perhaps it is no wonder that we hear complaints from the bar about a lack of transparency around the assignment of trials. Really, however, there should be nothing mysterious about it. Every litigator in King County should know how it works, and this is my attempt to explain it.

King County Superior Court is divided into three departments: Criminal, Civil and Unified Family Court (UFC). In addition, some our judges are assigned to Juvenile Court, the Involuntary Treatment Act Court at Harborview, and Drug Court. The MRJC has combined its Criminal and Civil departments, but operates UFC separately.

Downtown, judges in the Criminal and Civil departments manage about 250-300 civil cases each, even though most of their workdays are spent presiding over trials. We rule on discovery motions and prepare for summary judgment hearings during the evenings, lunch breaks and weekends.

Each week any given judge in any of the three departments could have one, two, three or more cases set for trial. Sometimes judges have none (these are often the judges who manage their cases assiduously) and these judges are available to take other courts' trials. UFC judges often have more trials set than one judge can possibly try in a week. As a general rule, criminal trials are assigned by the chief criminal judge to Criminal Department judges. This means that criminal judges typically need to re-assign their civil cases.

The trial assignments process focuses on redistributing the overflow UFC trials, the civil trials belonging to criminal judges, and other trials that might come from Juvenile Court or Harborview to judges in the Civil Department. Ideally, these trials are re-assigned to judges who have no trials scheduled, but sometimes we are forced to prioritize cases involving children, for example, over civil trials. In addition, due to years of budget cuts, we increasingly rely on judges to cover commissioner calendars.

During the trial assignments meeting, we figure out which judges will be assigned to coverage duties to supplement pro tem judges hired by the day. Prior to recent adjustments, we had three vacant commissioner positions; the number of days we need to cover each week is about 25. Fortunately, most of the time we can find pro tem judges.

In 2009, the judges of our court adopted a workload protocol and a list of priorities. We did so because we wanted to agree among ourselves on a principled method for allocating the scarce resource of available judges. Some cases, such as criminal, dependency and terminations of parental rights, have statutory priority. Other types of cases can become urgent for a number of reasons such as the safety of a party or child, limited availability of witnesses, interpreters or counsel, or serious hardship if trial is delayed. At the same time, the court also acknowledges its obligation to parties, witnesses and the public to achieve trial date certainty when possible.

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