In the eyes of the Washington Legislature, Spokane County should have had a 13th Superior Court judge more than 20 years ago.
The Legislature in 1997 authorized the addition of a 12th and 13th judge to Superior Court, agreeing to pay half the cost of each new position. The Spokane County commissioners added the 12th judge soon thereafter, but not the 13th.
In the past two decades, Spokane County’s population has grown by 140,000, but the number of Superior Court judges hasn’t budged.
Superior Court over the years has repeatedly asked the Spokane County commissioners, who oversee the county budget, to fund a 13th judge. The court is making the request once again this year as the commissioners craft the 2023 budget, arguing that the position is needed to reduce a backlog of unresolved cases and speed up a slowing justice system.
“We’re at a crisis stage in my opinion,” Superior Court Presiding Judge Julie McKay said in an interview.
But the commissioners this fall said they think a 13th judge may be too expensive. During an Oct. 24 meeting with McKay and Superior Court Administrator Ashley Callan, they gave no indication that their minds have changed.
Spokane County commissioners Mary Kuney, Josh Kerns and Al French did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
During its most recent staffing needs report in 2019, the state Administrative Office of the Courts said Spokane County Superior Court needed 24 judicial officers to handle its existing caseload. Superior Court currently has 20 judicial officers, with 12 judges and eight appointed court commissioners. Court commissioners act as judges, but lack the authority to deal with some cases.
McKay said she believes the county needs more judges, not court commissioners.
“In 1997 they said, ‘You need 13,’ ” she said. “We desperately need 13, but frankly we desperately need 14, 15 and 16.”
During their re-election campaigns this fall, Kuney, Kerns and French all refused to commit to funding a 13th judge. The incumbents and Wild Bill Schreiner were the only commissioner candidates on the general election ballot who didn’t support adding the position.
All three Republicans said they were unsure the county could afford another judge.
French said another judge may not be needed. He touted the work done by the eight court commissioners and noted that case filings have fallen since a key state Supreme Court ruling in 2021, commonly referred to as the Blake decision. The Blake decision made it more difficult for prosecutors to charge defendants for drug possession.
During the Oct. 24 meeting, French told McKay and Callan that if the county adds a 13th judge, it should be done in an election year. That way, he said, county residents can elect the judge instead of Gov. Jay Inslee making an appointment.
“The governor and I don’t think alike and so I’d rather have the people make that decision,” French said.
County officials disagree on how much a 13th judge would cost.
Callan, the Superior Court administrator, said the annual cost would be about $425,000. That figure would pay for half of the judge’s salary, a judicial assistant, a court reporter and two clerks. For context, Spokane County had a $677 million budget in 2022.
Mike Sparber, the county’s senior of law and justice, said he thinks the annual figure would be double that because the county would also need to hire two corrections officers for the jail and “possibly” a public defense attorney and prosecuting attorney. Callan pushed back on Sparber’s estimate and said the hiring of a 13th judge would not necessitate the hiring of more corrections officers and attorneys.
The commissioners aren’t only concerned about payroll expenses. Finding space for a new judge will be a challenge.
The 13th judge will need a courtroom in the Spokane County Courthouse, McKay said. The courthouse is full, though, so accommodating a new judge will mean reappropriating an occupied room.
Converting an existing space into a courtroom will cost roughly $1.5 million, Sparber said.
Despite the challenges that come along with adding a judge, McKay and Callan said the status quo in Superior Court is unsustainable.
The court’s case backlog has grown dramatically since 2000.
For example, Superior Court in 2004 resolved all but 10% of its criminal cases within nine months. Now, 25% of criminal cases remain unresolved after nine months.
Overall case filings reveal a growing backlog, too. Since 2000, the number of pending cases in Superior Court has climbed from a bit more than 6,000 to nearly 12,000.
“We’ve got a good bench, we do. They’re a hardworking bench,” said Matt Andersen, a former president of the Spokane County Bar Association who has been fervently advocating for a 13th judge. “There are a number of very good Superior Court judges who are just finding the workload oppressive.”
Andersen isn’t the only attorney calling for another judge. The Spokane County Bar Association wrote a resolution in September calling on the commissioners to fund it.
“The court is at a breaking point and has begun triaging which cases receive the limited resources and which must wait even longer for justice,” the bar association wrote.
Ken Zigler, a family law lawyer and current president of the bar association, said it takes significantly longer to get a hearing today than it did a decade ago. The county’s justice system has gotten slower.
“Access to justice has been and continues to be denied to many citizens of Spokane County,” the bar association wrote. “Justice Delayed is Justice Denied.”
McKay acknowledged that one more judge won’t eliminate Superior Court’s case backlog. A 13th judge is still a critical first step, she said.
“The public is demanding that the criminal justice system do its work,” she said. “It can’t work unless you have bodies to do it.”
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