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News >  Washington

King County’s courts are ‘barely keeping up’ with a massive backlog of cases due to the COVID-19 pandemic

UPDATED: Mon., July 12, 2021

By Sara Jean Green Seattle-Times

More than 250 murder cases await trial in King County Superior Court. Some 400 sexual assault victims have already been waiting nearly two years to testify against the people accused of hurting them.

Armed robberies, aggravated assaults, shootings and other violent crimes continue to pile up as the county’s legal system attempts to dig out from a historic backlog of felony cases, while also straining to address family law and civil law matters.

Meanwhile in King County District Court, which is responsible for hearing misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor cases in several King County cities, more than 9,000 traffic infractions await hearings, many of which could be dismissed as cases run up against statutes of limitations. Small-claims lawsuits aren’t being heard and there are scarce funds for mediation.

“We’re barely keeping up with our criminal work,” the District Court’s presiding judge, Susan Mahoney, said in a Tuesday meeting of the Metropolitan King County Council’s Budget and Financial Management Committee.

Defendants, victims and civil litigants have faced delays or waited in limbo over the past 16 months as the COVID-19 pandemic raged and court operations were curtailed to keep employees and members of the public safe. Now, the county’s courts, clerks, prosecutors and public defenders are all vying for a share of the last remaining federal pandemic relief money, seeking resources to keep cases moving.

King County received a total of $437 million under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 to address the continued impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With all but $70 million of those funds already spent, Superior Court Presiding Judge Jim Rogers in May requested $17.4 million starting in September through next year to address the growing backlog of criminal cases. He anticipates the Superior Court will need a total of $34.1 million over three years to clear the backlog with help from temporary judges who have agreed to come out of retirement and take on criminal case loads.

For the District Court, Mahoney has requested $15.4 million over three years and proposed adding night courts and Saturday hearing calendars to get back on track.

But with budget requests far exceeding the remaining funds, County Executive Dow Constantine proposed allocating a fraction of that in the county’s eighth COVID-19 emergency supplemental appropriations budget: $3.6 million to the Superior Court and $2.1 million to the District Court.

Under his proposal, the King County Prosecutor’s Office would get $12.8 million, the Department of Public Defense would get $10.6 million, and the Superior Court Clerk’s Office would get nearly $1.6 million – all figures that are significantly lower than what each agency requested, according to a staff report submitted to the county’s budget committee.

“The executive’s (proposed) budget did virtually nothing to help us attack the (criminal case) backlog,” said Rogers in a recent interview. He is shifting judges out of the family law and civil law departments to increase capacity to hear criminal matters. “The practical reality is we have to shut down (the civil department) for three years or people will remain in jail for homicides, sexual assaults or assaults that result in great bodily injury (as they await trial). It’s a terrible choice we face.”

While the county significantly reduced the population of its two adult jails during the pandemic, about 1,300 people who are mostly accused of committing violent felonies remain incarcerated each day as cases lag. The vast majority of them are awaiting trial and haven’t been convicted.

Rogers remains hopeful the County Council will boost the Superior Court’s funding allocation to around $10.8 million. During the budget committee’s virtual meeting Tuesday, several local attorneys and the executive director of the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center spoke in support of Rogers’ budget ask.

Members of the budget committee signaled during Tuesday’s meeting that they were open to increasing at least some of the executive’s proposed allocations: Jeanne Kohl-Welles, the budget committee chair, said a lot of work lies ahead to craft the council’s amendment to the emergency supplemental budget, and Rod Dembrowski, the committee’s vice chair, called the proposed $3.6 million to the Superior Court “a pittance.”

“There’s a justice issue that’s about to explode,” said Dembrowski, a former attorney, who noted judges are constitutionally obligated to clear the criminal case backlog first, which means civil cases “will be kicked to the back of the line and there will be real harm done.”

The full County Council is expected to vote on amendments to what will be its last COVID-19 supplemental budget on July 27, the council’s last meeting before its August recess.

A rapid shiftWhen the pandemic hit, King County Superior Court quickly pivoted to keep courthouse operations moving.

In March 2020, the court received around $10 million in COVID-19 funds and installed TVs in courtrooms and introduced new technology to allow for more telephonic and virtual hearings. Between July 2020 and March, it held more than 600 trials, including 120 jury trials, by moving civil trials to the Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue, allowing jury selection and noncriminal witness testimony to occur remotely, and reconfiguring courtrooms at the downtown Seattle courthouse for criminal trials to accommodate social distancing requirements on the advice of public health officials.

In the early days of the pandemic, insurance companies stopped settling personal-injury tort claims because regular people who had been hurt lost the only leverage they had – the threat of a civil jury trial, Seattle attorney Mike Wampold said during Tuesday’s budget committee meeting.

“It’s really only because of the heroic efforts of the King County court – and I can’t stress that enough – that this got turned around. Because of the leadership of Judge Rogers, and what they did – doing Zoom trials (and conducting) in-person trials wearing masks at the Meydenbauer Center – all of a sudden the spigots opened back up and insurance companies started paying our clients,” Wampold said. “People were able to get this very necessary money and get some amount of their lives back.”

But unlike civil and family law trials, criminal trials must be done in person to safeguard defendants’ constitutional rights to face their accusers. Criminal trials for people facing felony charges also can’t be moved out of the county’s two courthouses in Seattle and Kent for security reasons and to maintain the chain of custody for items of evidence presented to jurors.

During the pandemic, felony criminal trials were twice completely shut down for a combined period of more than nine months, according to Rogers. That’s led to a backlog of thousands of cases involving violent crimes, some dating back to 2018.

Mary Ellen Stone, executive director of the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center, told the County Council’s budget committee that as of January, 408 sexual assault victims had already been waiting nearly two years to face their assailants at trial, not including the time it took police to investigate their cases. Most victims are girls and women, with an average age of 16, she said.

“Two years in the life of a 10-year-old, an 11-year-old, a 12-year-old is an eternity, and they shouldn’t have to wait for that kind of time to take action against someone who raped them,” Stone said. “The backlog that we have with the criminal cases is simply unacceptable.”

Looking ahead

In 2019, 188,000 jurors were summoned to hear cases in Superior Court, Rogers said. This year, he expects the number of juror summonses to exceed 425,000.

Judge Karen Donohue, the Superior Court’s chief criminal judge, said that at the end of May 2019 there were about 3,200 pending felony cases, a number that’s since ballooned by nearly double. More than 3,600 cases are to be set for trial in Seattle and Kent between now and the end of the year, including more than 200 homicide cases, she said.

During the pandemic, two and sometimes three courtrooms were needed at the Seattle courthouse per criminal trial – one for the actual trial, one to serve as a jury room to avoid the cramped quarters of actual jury rooms, and occasionally a third courtroom to allow observers to watch proceedings via video stream.

Once social distancing requirements are eased, more courtrooms will open up, allowing for more trials to be held simultaneously, according to Rogers and Donohue.

King County Superior Court is also awaiting appointment of four judges by Gov. Jay Inslee, filling three positions left open by recent retirements and one new position that will add a 54th judge to the bench, Donohue said.

Like Rogers, she feels an urgency to clear the backlog of violent criminal cases, including sexual assault cases that have been pending for years – and as a result, have prolonged and aggravated the trauma experienced by victims.

“It’s just really tragic we can’t get these cases out (for trial) and I’m really frustrated that our hands are tied,” Donohue said. “I think if we don’t get additional resources, we’re looking at least a decade to dig out from under it.”

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