People keep asking me how I am going to celebrate the end of my term as presiding judge on December 31. I hope by the time that date arrives I will be ready to let go, but it will be hard. This was the most satisfying job I’ve ever had. Not necessarily the most fun job, I will acknowledge. But the one I will look back on as having made the most difference for the most people.
As a presiding judge, I was lucky. The 53 judges on this bench for the past three years have been team players. I asked Governor Jay Inslee not to send me blowhards and divas, and he didn’t. Having a bench full of judges far more committed to getting the work done than worrying about who was getting credit for doing it made all the difference. I could focus on long-term projects to improve the Court without wasting time refereeing petty disputes. A bench this hardworking would make any PJ love the job.
I’ve also been fortunate to receive very wise counsel from the chief judges and the Executive Committee. And I have not had to worry for one minute about keeping the Court running day to day because in addition to the chiefs, I’ve had three dedicated and efficient assistant presiding judges — Judge Palmer Robinson, Judge Beth Andrus and Judge Laura Inveen, who succeeds me as presiding judge.
And then there is Paul Sherfey, the Court’s chief administrative officer. I honestly cannot imagine being presiding judge without a talented and hardworking partner in the office across the hall. Paul has innate political skills, but shies from the limelight. He lets the PJ execute his strategy and tactics. Paul and I could not be more different (he’s a rule follower; I’m a recovering public defender) and yet we have found ways to balance one another to benefit the Court. I am really going to miss working with my partner and friend.
Paul leads a staff of 380. As presiding judge, one becomes much more familiar with all of the people it takes to run the 14th largest county court system in the country, and an innovative one at that. We have staff who get up every morning excited to help angry, stressed out, pro se litigants navigate the court to get the divorce they desperately want or need. There are others who greet resentful jurors every day with a smile. We have juvenile probation counselors who find joy working with some of our community’s most challenging young people — often for 30 years. It has been an honor helping Paul to lead this small army of dedicated staff.
With day-to-day operations well in hand, I have been able to work on long-term projects. One of the most satisfying has been empowering our staff to take a leading role in designing and implementing our strategic agenda. The Court adopted a plan with five broad strategic focus areas and specific objectives. The staff came up with ideas for projects that would improve the Court’s performance in each of these areas (such as access, case flow and work environment). We created staff-led teams to work on these projects — now, in our second year, I can report that the strategic action teams have mostly completed their projects and, more important, this approach has energized the staff from bottom to top.
One of the first things we tackled when I began my term was creating a King County replacement for the State’s mainframe data and case management system, SCOMIS. Once the Court decided not to go along with the State’s “one size fits all” case management system, our doggedly determined county clerk, Barbara Miner, led the effort to obtain funding from the County Council to build our own system. It will be ready to “go live” in a little over a year. Many complications remain on the state level, but it will not be long before our clerks get to input data into a modern system that will produce information far more understandable to lawyers and the public.
During my three years in this role, judges Jim Rogers, Dean Lum, Ronald Kessler and Pat Oishi have worked very hard to make our criminal and MRJC operations as efficient as possible. Especially in Kent, our judges have stepped up to get cases moving as fast as we can do so. There are limits on what judges can do alone, however, and we now need to work with the other branches of government — the prosecutor and the Department of Public Defense — to devote more lawyers to child-sex cases in Kent. I’m satisfied, though, that we are doing our level best.
We’ve had some hard times while I’ve sat in this chair. The hardest were the weeks we spent considering how to lay off three commissioners. These are our colleagues, our subject matter experts on family law, guardianship and probate. They know their stuff. Laying off such valuable employees demonstrates with crystal clarity that our tax structure is strangling our justice system.
Times like these, as well as the inevitable personnel matters that bubble up to the PJ’s office, are balanced by the moments of celebration. At this point, I’ve sworn in hundreds of new lawyers. The highlight for me of these ceremonies is meeting first-generation law graduates and their proud families. And by my count I’ve sworn in nine new judges. I get goose bumps every time I raise my right hand and read the line “I will support the Constitution …”
As regular readers of this column know, my passion these past three years has been juvenile justice. Chief Juvenile Court Judge Wesley Saint Clair has been a visionary leader and eloquent spokesperson in the community on juvenile issues. The community itself has pressed the Court to reduce the use of detention, reduce racial disproportionality and increase the use of diversion to keep youth out of the justice system altogether. Our entire Juvenile Court staff — from Director Lea Ennis to the administrative assistants in the field offices — have all had a hand in improving our work at Juvenile Court.
In mid-November, we learned that comparing the first nine months of 2016 with the same period last year, filings in Juvenile Court have plummeted by 24 percent, and a smaller share of those filings are against African-American youth. African-American youth are spending less time in detention, but still account for more than half of incarcerated youth. To be sure, dropping from 54.8 percent to 51.6 percent in this area might not look like much, but it does look like we are finally moving the needle a little.
Our use of detention for probation violations has dropped by 28 percent. Not only do we have the lowest incarceration rate in the United States, we are the only jurisdiction in the country to reduce disproportionality while continuing to reduce the use of detention.
Folks in our Juvenile Court are working really hard to achieve these results. It takes one little policy change after another to eke out a single percentage point change. It might not be the dramatic shift that parts of the community are looking for, but if there is one thing I’ve learned in this job, it is that courts change incrementally. By design, courts are conservative institutions. That’s a hard lesson for a recovering public defender to learn, but it’s the truth.
Justice itself happens one case at a time. Only as presiding judge does one have the privilege of helping to move the needle by a percentage point, affecting dozens of people at a time. I’ll be going back to a role where I make justice a reality for individual people every day. I know once I get to look in their eyes, I will be thrilled all over again by the responsibility of doing right by each person before me. At least, that’s what I am telling myself.
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