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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

C. Matthew Andersen: The court needs your vote for commissioners

C. Matthew Andersen

By C. Matthew Andersen

Courts resolve disputes based on law, traditions and acceptance that an impartial judge’s ruling is a better sense of fairness than a shoot out. People just want to be heard when they cannot see eye to eye.

In our system of justice being heard is a right called due process. The federal and state Constitutions established courts to resolve disputes in a civilized setting by protecting the right to notice of a wrong and an opportunity to be heard. Our state Constitution grants as a right that administration of justice shall be open and without delay. These rights are enforced by the right to trial by jury. When a right cannot be exercised there is no right at all.

When people cannot be heard, they start self-help, occasionally violently. That self-help violates our Constitution dictum of preserving domestic tranquility. None of this is complicated. To preserve the social compact set down by our founders, a community needs to have sufficient judges to timely hear disputes at essentially no cost to them. Spokane does not have sufficient Superior Court judges to timely hear the 25,000 civil or criminal cases filed annually, even given the slight decline in filings during COVID-19. Our right to justice without delay is being denied.

The county has 12 Superior Court judges, but only six of them regularly hear criminal and civil trials, which constitutes 50% of the filed cases. Six judges are assigned to Family Law, Juvenile Court, Criminal Pre-Trial, Therapeutic Courts and Presiding. The remaining six are more than busy handling their assigned trial matters. Lest you think our judges are lazy, know that they have one of the highest completion rate of any county in the state. Still, every year 850 plus civil and criminal cases remain pending for more than one year and 160 plus over two years. That is not justice for those litigants. People become frustrated, they have recurring attorney bills and they cease to believe in our system of justice. The public is incensed that criminal cases linger while charged individuals are either out on bail or languishing in jail. There are not enough judges to get those cases heard timely.

The Legislature authorizes the number of judges based on careful consideration of the needs of a county. The state pays half the salary of the judge, and the county pays the other half, plus administrative staff. Spokane’s 12th and 13th judges were approved in 1997. The County Commissioners authorized the 12th judge but refuse to fund the 13th, since 1997. In 1997 the population of Spokane County was 405,550. In 2021 it was 546,000 and it is growing. Those additional 140,000 citizens join those backed up trying to get a dispute resolved. The State Office of Administration of the Court calculates today Spokane County needs more than 13 judges. The Legislature is not going to approve more judges if the County Commissioners will not fund the one already approved.

Ask any trial lawyer how hard it is to get a case to trial. They will tell you the time in trial is small in portion to the effort that goes into pretrial matters. Judges must resolve filed motions, conduct hearings, resolve disputes while trying to find time to write opinions all before the case can be heard. We should all be proud of the effort of each of our Superior Court judges. But the fact is they are overwhelmed, have asked for assistance repeatedly from the commissioners and are rebuffed each year.

The shortchanging of our courts has become a crisis of delay that is getting worse each year. It is no longer sustainable. Our judges need help with an obvious and fixable crisis. It is time for citizens to take this crisis in our collective hands and demand that the commissioners act.

You can do your part. Go to each of the candidates running for the five commission positions open this year and ask them for a pledge to fund immediately the 13th judge; and pledge to work with our state representatives to get the necessary remaining judges. If you cannot get the pledge, don’t vote for that candidate.

It is our rights and domestic peace that is being abused by nonresponsive elected officials. Ask of them no more than what our Constitution guarantees each of us; and their oath of office demands. Authorize and fund our Superior Courts now by electing responsible commissioners.

C. Matthew Andersen, of Spokane, is past president of the Spokane County Bar Association.

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