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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘It’s the first step’: Spokane County Commission approves 13th Superior Court judge

The Spokane County Commission, now a five-member body, meets for the first time in January.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

More than two decades after the Washington Legislature approved a 13th Superior Court judge in Spokane County, the county commissioners agreed to fund the position Tuesday.

Now, they just need to find the new judge a courtroom.

“From my perspective, it’s the first step,” said Presiding Spokane County Superior Court Judge Julie McKay. “We need so much more.”

The position will be funded starting in January 2024, when Gov. Jay Inslee can appoint someone to fill it.

During its most recent staffing needs report in 2019, the state Administrative Office of the Courts said the 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 believes the court needs more judges. Superior Court has lost a significant amount of institutional knowledge in recent years with a handful of retirements and more judges set to leave in the near future. Judge Michael Price is set to retire next month, and Judge Charnelle Bjelkengren is nominated for a federal judgeship.

During their 2022 re-election campaigns, commissioners Mary Kuney, Josh Kerns and Al French refused to commit to funding the position, saying they were unsure the county could afford another judge.

French said funding a new judgeship has been a discussion for months with the bench and court administrators.

Amber Waldref, one of two Democrats on the commission, said she hopes a new judge will help cases move through the system more quickly.

“We’ve had a lot of need for a thirteenth judge,” Waldref said “I think it’s important that we’re investing in all parts of the criminal justice system that we can.”

Chris Jordan, the other Democrat on the commission, said he was fulfilling a campaign promise by voting to fund the position. An attorney himself, Jordan has seen how the COVID-19 pandemic created a case backlog in an already overburdened system.

“My hope is it will help us resolve cases faster,” Jordan said.

All five county commissioners voted in favor of funding the position Tuesday, but it’s unclear where the judge would actually work.

The court has 20 judicial officers and 18 courtrooms. The commission already approved turning Waldref’s soon-to-be former office on the second floor of the courthouse into a small courtroom to handle the first appearance docket. County commissioners’ offices are in the courthouse.

The room wouldn’t be large enough for a jury box.

“The courtroom is not anywhere close to what we need,” McKay said. “We would have plenty of work for a 13th judge to do even if I had to put them in a conference room and just hand them paperwork to review. We have so much.”

McKay would love for the new judge to take on trials, but that’s unlikely without a new courtroom that can handle a jury and offices for staff.

“Space does create some real issues as to what we have the availability to use that judge for,” McKay said.

Jordan said he hopes to create a committee to address the facilities issue, and that a “collaborative process” would be best for everyone.

The new, albeit small, courtroom could be “part” of the solution, he said.

Waldref and French agreed that the new courtroom would be a help.

French noted a new judicial department isn’t just a judge, but also a judicial assistant and court reporter. The new department also adds to the clerk’s office workload.

“It’s not just throwing a judge in a courtroom,” French said. “We’ve got all these other support facilities that are required as well.”

The commissioners have yet to fit the cost for the department into the 2024 budget, Waldref said.