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Down one colleague because of budget cuts, Spokane County District Court judges are picking up the slack

UPDATED: Thu., Feb. 8, 2018

Spokane County District Court Judge Vance Peterson listens intensely to a plaintiff on April 17, 2013. Peterson said he and his colleagues have managed to absorb the extra workload resulting from the retirement of Judge Gregory Tripp. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane County District Court Judge Vance Peterson listens intensely to a plaintiff on April 17, 2013. Peterson said he and his colleagues have managed to absorb the extra workload resulting from the retirement of Judge Gregory Tripp. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

In early October, shortly after Judge Gregory Tripp retired from the Spokane County District Court, the seven remaining judges on the court signed a letter asking county commissioners to hold off on appointing a replacement.

It was an unusual request, but the judges said they would rather take on extra cases than pare down the court’s support staff. The commissioners at the time were trying to avert a budget shortfall of nearly $10 million, and the court had been asked to cut spending by more than $332,000.

So the court effectively gave up most of the money that would have gone toward Tripp’s 2018 salary and benefits, and it cobbled together funding to keep three staff positions that had been threatened.

“I was pleased that they came forward with this, and I think it’s a great way to think outside the box,” Commissioner Josh Kerns said Wednesday. He added that he applauds the judges for “taking the initiative to do the people’s business while living within the people’s means.”

Presiding Judge Vance Peterson said he and his colleagues have managed to absorb Tripp’s workload in innovative ways, such as early case resolution (essentially, plea deals) for defendants charged with third-degree driving with a suspended license.

“Essentially we’re taking a third-degree DWLS and turning it into a traffic infraction,” Peterson said. “So it goes from 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine down to a civil infraction and payment of a 125, 150 bucks.”

In exchange for leniency, defendants commit to a driver relicensing program. That results in fewer hearings taking up judges’ time and fewer warrants issued for defendants who don’t show up to those hearings. Peterson said the judges prefer to focus on more serious offenses like domestic violence and driving under the influence.

Peterson said there’s also been “a significant increase” in the use of judges pro tempore (substitute judges who are paid a daily rate of $200).

Although the current arrangement is saving money, Peterson said it’s unsustainable, because judges have less time to spend on each case – a significant factor, he said, when the defendant struggles with mental illness or substance abuse.

“Studies have shown that if a judge spends about three minutes per defendant, in the course of getting a simple continuance, recidivism rates reduce significantly, because there’s a relationship between the defendant and the judge that typically doesn’t exist,” he said. “Our volumes are so doggone high, you don’t have an ability to dig deeper into what’s wrong with these people.”

Peterson said he worries about “judicial burnout” that could influence rulings. And as presiding judge, he has much less time for administrative tasks, such as coordinating with the court’s security and probation office.

“We’re like a V-8 engine,” he said. “We’re down to seven cylinders, chugging down the road. It’s hurting everything else on the car. But the reality is, you give us our eighth cylinder back and we’ll be fine.”

Each year, the District Court handles tens of thousands of low-level crimes and infractions for Spokane County and the cities of Spokane Valley, Liberty Lake, Millwood, Deer Park, Fairfield, Latah, Rockford and Spangle. Judges make $161,092, a salary set by a state commission, and are scheduled for a bump to $164,313 this fall.

The question of how many judges are needed on the court has been raised several times since the city of Spokane established its Municipal Court in 2009, taking much of the District Court’s caseload.

In 2016, after Judge Sara Derr retired, Commissioners Al French, Shelly O’Quinn and Nancy McLaughlin signed a letter asking state officials to reduce the number of District Court judges on the county’s payroll. They suggested the court could get by with six.

Washington’s Administrative Office of the Courts, which studies caseloads and makes recommendations to the Legislature, affirmed last year that eight District Court judges is the ideal number for Spokane County.

Kerns said the commissioners cut the District Court’s budget with an understanding that Judge Tripp’s old position will need to be funded after this year’s special election.

“I’m not anticipating begging the commissioners to fully fund the position because we (picked up the slack) out of the goodness of our hearts,” Peterson said.

A new judge will be elected to replace Peterson, too. His term runs through January 2019, and he plans to retire.

Commissioner Mary Kuney, who was appointed in the middle of budget negotiations for this year, said talks are only beginning for 2019. It remains to be seen whether the commissioners will resurrect an abandoned ballot measure that would raise county property taxes.

“We’ve got to take a fresh look at everything,” Kuney said.

Correction: This story was changed on Feb. 8, 2018. A previous version misstated the amount of the fine that can be imposed for the crime of third-degree driving with a suspended license.

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