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Voters to decide on ‘portable’ judges

Voters will decide next month whether to amend the state constitution to create “portable” judges that could relieve trial-court backlogs, particularly in the state’s larger counties.

Bainbridge Island Municipal Court Judge Stephen Holman, who was part of the judicial study group that recommended the change, says the amendment may not have a lot of impact in Kitsap County, but could be helpful across the water.

“There is a backlog problem, particularly with civil cases (in King County),” Holman said, noting that because of the speedy-trial guarantees in the state and federal constitutions, criminal cases take priority on a court’s trial calendar.

“It would be nice if the presiding judges had a list of judges they could import when dockets get full,” he said.

Court backlogs are less of a problem here, Holman said. But because many cases involving Bainbridge interests are filed in King County – the Woodward school lawsuit, for example – the efficiency of court system there does have an impact here.

The proposed amendment, given the distinctly un-poetic label of Engrossed Senate Joint Resolution 8208, would allow the presiding judge in any county’s superior court to “import” another elected judge for temporary assignment.

The provision would allow an imported judge to conduct a civil or criminal trial.

But the most likely use of the provision would be for the imported judge to hear routine motions and scheduling matters, freeing up a resident judge for more trial work, according to Gerry Alexander, Chief Justice of the Washington Supreme Court, who is one of the measure’s prime backers.

Under present law, a temporary judge – either an elected judge or a lawyer acting as a judge “pro tem” – can hear matters with the consent of the parties. The proposed change would allow temporary appointment of an elected judge without the parties’ consent, while still allowing temporary lawyer-judges with the parties’ consent.

“This would not affect an appointed judge like myself,” Holman said.

Holman said the legislature has been reluctant to increase the number of judges as fast as the case-loads are increasing, principally due to costs.

Estimates are that a new Superior Court judgeship costs roughly $650,000 a year, he said. Less than 20 percent of the cost is the judge’s salary – the rest of the cost is for courtrooms and court personnel.

A group called the Board of Judicial Administration – 16 judges from around the state who serve courts at various levels, including Holman – undertook an in-depth analysis last year aimed at finding ways to make the state’s trial court system more efficient.

The portable-judge plan was seen as a way to increase efficiency with little or no increase in cost.

Both the Senate and House passed it by the constitutionally mandated two-thirds margin. The Senate vote was 39-8, while the House vote was 91-5.

The proposal will become part of the state’s constitution if it is approved by a simple majority of voters in November.

There is little or no organized opposition to the measure, Holman said. The argument against the plan that appears in the state voter’s guide asserts that election of judges assures their accountability, and that that accountability is reduced when judges serve in areas where they are not elected.

The whole concept of electing judges is controversial, Holman said, noting that the federal judiciary, all of which is appointed, is generally regarded at least as highly as elected state judges.“That’s an argument that will never be resolved,” he said.

Holman says the proposal is something of a compromise that was ultimately endorsed by all of the major players in the court system – criminal lawyers and prosecutors, and civil attorneys who represent both plaintiffs and defendants.

If the amendment passes, the actual mechanism for using portable judges will be a Supreme Court rule.

Under that rule, the presiding judge will be required to appoint only those judges who are qualified and experienced in the area of law they will be asked to handle.

Moreover, any party will be able to excuse an appointed judge once without giving a reason – a challenge that can be made in addition to the present challenge “for prejudice” that each party is allowed.

Holman says the biggest challenge may be simply to increase awareness of the amendment and the issues it addresses before the election.

“We think this deserves support,” he said, “but it’s not something that has had a lot of visibility.”

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