County pleads with McKenna over suit

MONTESANO — The Grays Harbor County commissioners are pressing Attorney General Rob McKenna to stop giving the Grays Harbor Superior Court judges a “blank check” for the judges to take “extremist legal positions” in their lawsuit against the county.

The judges allege that the commissioners have no right to cut the judicial budget, need to continue to provide courthouse security especially in the wake of the March attacks on a deputy and Superior Court Judge Dave Edwards and should build the judges a third courtroom. A Thurston County judge is set to hear arguments over the third courtroom debate next month.

The commissioners have denied the allegations, although they recently restored the budget cuts they originally had imposed. The county has also filed a countersuit against the state, saying that it should be the state’s responsibility to increase judicial funding.

“It is unfortunate that the commissioners have injected unwarranted and unhelpful rhetoric into this case,” said Special Attorney General Scott Missall, representing the judges. “It is also unfortunate that the commissioners have injected politics into this case by trying to put the Attorney General on the spot only because he is running for governor.”

In a letter to McKenna issued Monday and signed by all three commissioners, they write, “We request that you stop funding extremist legal positions that threaten legislative authority. If you refuse, it is time for you to explain to the voters how local government and the state are going to cope with one branch of government that has no responsibility for raising revenue having the complete authority to set their own budget as they deem to be reasonably necessary. …

“You are running for governor. Our Board has Democrats and a Republican. This is not a partisan issue for us,” added the commissioners, which consist of Democrats Terry Willis and Mike Wilson and Republican Herb Welch.

During a campaign stop in Aberdeen earlier this month, McKenna was quizzed by The Daily World’s editorial board about the judges lawsuit and he said his office really had no choice but to represent the judges because of a recent state Supreme Court case when his office tried to refuse to represent Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark in a dispute in Okanogan County. McKenna said that the opinion appears to impact all state officers, including Superior Court judges.

The total legal bill now adds up to more than $403,000, which works out to $257,733 for a special assistant attorney general to represent the judges out of state coffers and $145,000 out of the county budget for a special deputy prosecutor to represent the commissioners.

The commissioners put the blame for incurring “substantial attorney fees” on McKenna’s Office for agreeing to represent the judges.

“Thus, during these difficult times, Grays Harbor County has needed to expend precious taxpayer dollars to defend itself and its legislative authority while the Superior Court essentially has a blank check to press its claims because of your office,” they write.

The commissioners drafted the letter in conjunction with their legal counsel, Special Deputy Prosecutor Thomas Fitzpatrick. They conducted a 45 minute executive session with Fitzpatrick Monday morning.

The commissioners warn McKenna, “It is highly likely the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals will press a similar position against the Legislature if the Grays Harbor Judges are successful. … The Board appreciates that as a result of legal action in regard to education, the Legislature in these tough financial times must struggle to fund education. Because of the actions of your office, you have now unnecessarily opened the door to another assault on the state budget where the courts alone can determine their financial needs and the Legislature can do nothing but give the judges whatever they want.”

Missall said that the letter very well could violate the state’s rules of professional conduct for attorneys because McKenna is involved in the case and is represented by his office’s attorneys. Missall pointed out that lawyers are supposed to contact only other lawyers, not clients directly. Missall said that the Attorney General has a duty to represent all state officers, whether they are in the Executive, Legislative, or Judicial branch of government.

“The Commissioners are obviously lashing out because they are not prevailing in court,” Missall said, noting the county’s attempts to petition the case directly to the State Supreme Court failed. “They forget that it was their arbitrary decision to drastically cut the Superior Court’s budget that forced this unnecessary lawsuit.”

Commissioner Willis said that the letter is not just meant to serve as a warning to McKenna, but other state officials, as well. It’s being sent to Gov. Chris Gregoire, all of the House and Senate leadership, along with local legislators, the Association of Washington Cities and the state Association of Counties.

“If the Legislature does not yet realize the precarious position your office has placed it in as an institution, we hope this letter does so,” the commissioners add.

Welch says he supports McKenna’s bid for governor and “had concerns about the timing of the letter” just weeks before Election Day, and still does, but said it was important to get the information out there.

“We need to do something — whatever is possible to do rapidly — to stop the forced bleeding of our budget,” Welch said. “I think it’s vital we show a united front on this issue.”

“This is an issue that is bigger than just Grays Harbor and needs to be taken seriously,” Willis added.