County vs. judges case continues

OLYMPIA — Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Wickham pleaded with both the Grays Harbor County commissioners and the Grays Harbor Superior Court judges on Tuesday to settle their lawsuit with each other on their own.

But, he noted, given that the lawsuit was filed back in December, if the parties could have settled the issue on their own by now, maybe they would have. Wickham told both parties he was considering appointing a special “master but what the statute would call a referee,” someone with knowledge of court administration to interview all of the parties, dig up facts and compare the staff ratios and court budgets with state and national standards.

Wickham said he simply didn’t have enough information to weigh in on whether the Grays Harbor Superior Court was at a minimum service level and couldn’t sustain any further cuts, as alleged in the lawsuit filed by the Superior Court judges.

The judges allege that the cuts imposed by the county commissioners in the 2012 judicial budget don’t allow the court to function properly and are a violation of the Separation of Powers doctrine, guaranteed by the Constitution. The commissioners say they have the right to cut the court’s budget and have filed a countersuit against the state, saying the state has failed in its duty to provide adequate funding for the counties. The state has denied the allegations.

Most recently, the judges are asking the court for an injunction that would add $75,000 to the court’s budget, which is what Tuesday’s arguments centered around. They say if the revenue isn’t added to their budget, they’ll be forced to close the court in mid-November and furlough the four Superior Court employees for 32 business days until the next budget year.

Special Attorney General Scott Missall, who represents the judges, noted that the court isn’t simply like a machine that makes spark plugs, where you turn it off and then back on when the money comes back.

Special Deputy Prosecutor Tom Fitzpatrick, who represents the commissioners, told the judge that there is still plenty of time left for the county commissioners to allocate money to the court and for both parties to meet and talk about the budget situation.

“They have to begin a process of working with each other and learning to partner with each other just like you’ve been able to do in Thurston County and elsewhere,” Fitzpatrick said, arguing that granting a preliminary injunction now would be “short-circuiting a process.”

“What’s really in the public interest to both of these parties is they need to learn to work together,” Fitzpatrick told the judge.

“The point I want to drive home is we’re here because of an inadequate legislative process,” Missall countered. “The Superior Court requested a budget of $705,000 last year and the county then cut it by about 8 percent and assigned most of the cuts to the personnel section. It hasn’t worked. The commissioners would not, in fact, listen to the Superior Court.”

Missall also pointed out that Thurston County has 28 staff members for 10 judges, while Grays Harbor has four staff for three judges, a ratio of 0.66 per staff.

“If you were operating at a staff level like Grays Harbor is, you’d be looking at 6.7 staff positions,” Missall said. “Putting you in their shoes, would you lay off 21 of them and furlough the rest of them to make the court operate? That’s an unreasonable thing to do.”

“In order for me to answer the question that I think is clearly presented, I need to have a better understanding of the historical budget information and case load needs of the courts and I need to be able to compare that statewide,” Wickham told the parties. “My belief is that there are state and federal constitutional issues at play here and there’s a question as to whether or not the request being made in Superior Court of Grays Harbor County is consistent with the standards in the State of Washington and nationally. And I think all of that bears on this issue. …

“No disrespect to either side, but this is a big issue and I hope you can appreciate I’m going to approach this cautiously,” the judge added. Missall formally asked Wickham to appoint a referee after Wickham personally made the suggestion. The issue will be presented during another hearing set for next week. Wickham told the parties to come prepared with suggestions on who the appointee could be.

Wickham said he expects the appointee to be an officer of the court, who would visit the Grays Harbor Courthouse, talk to staff and gather both current and historical budget information; then write up a report for Wickham and both parties to sort over and for the judge to decide on in October.

“The issue that is raised today needs to be resolved by early to late November,” Wickham said. “I feel a responsibility to keep this case moving.”

He warned both parties that given the caliber of person he wants to appoint — a retired court administrator or someone with a background at a state or national judicial association — it’s likely not to come cheap and both sides would divide the costs equally.

“I also need to say one more time that this is an expensive process,” Wickham said. “Litigation is an expensive process and I would hope a way could be found for both sides in this case to resolve their differences.”

“These are difficult issues in the best of times and these are not the best of times,” Wickham told the parties. “The courts across the country are having a hard time sorting out these issues. These negotiations are not easy, but I think the public demands there be continued efforts to try and find a mutually acceptable result. I’m not suggesting one side should capitulate.”

Accompanying the attorneys for the county and judges were County Commission Chair Terry Willis and presiding Superior Court Judge Gordon Godfrey. A deputy attorney general was also present, but told the judge he had no arguments at this time.