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County hopes to reduce number of judges

Tue., Jan. 27, 2009, midnight

For Spokane County District Court, eight apparently is enough.

The city of Spokane defected from District Court at the beginning of the year, taking some of the caseload with it, and county officials believe Spokane Valley will decide to do the same today. As a result, the Spokane County Commission voted Monday to send a letter requesting that the state Legislature reduce the number of District Court judges it must keep on the payroll.

Spokane County funds nine judge positions, though it has legislative approval for 10. The commission never funded the 10th position despite a lawsuit seeking to compel them to do so.

And another position opened last fall when Judge Annette Plese won her election to replace retiring Superior Court Judge Robert Austin. That left District Court with eight judges, which is essentially what a recent study says is needed to handle the number of cases, minus those from Spokane and Spokane Valley, said Jim Emacio, the chief deputy civil prosecuting attorney.

An “Objective Workload Analysis” by the state Supreme Court showed that the county needs about 7.5 judges to handle the caseload without cases from Spokane and Spokane Valley.

Commissioner Todd Mielke said he would anticipate taxpayers asking why the county would round up to eight positions rather than round down to seven and hire a part-time court commissioner to handle the other cases, especially because the county is on the hook for the judge’s salary.

District judges make $141,710 a year, a salary set annually by a state commission.

If Cheney or Deer Park chose to end their contracts for court services with the county, Mielke said, it would leave the county funding eight positions for four years without the caseload to justify them.

Commissioner Mark Richard, the son of former District Court Judge Richard Richard, disagreed. “It’s my opinion that we run the risk of underestimating those judges’ caseloads as well,” he said.

District Court Judge Vance Peterson said that the analysis of caseload gave no consideration for the administrative work done by the presiding judge. “That will take up half your time,” Peterson said. “It’s not qualified, but easily explainable … how I justify eight.”

District Court Judge Sara Derr agreed with Peterson. “The statistical analysis does not include everything and it can’t,” she said.

Emacio said that because the county has not yet filled Plese’s position, none of the sitting judges would lose their jobs.

“I recommend that we send a letter to the chief justice to get this process started,” Emacio said. “This has a better chance of going through if the judges agree.”

The judges are expected to meet this week to decide whether to send a letter endorsing the county’s plan to keep Plese’s seat vacant and to reduce the number of approved positions from 10 to eight.

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