LONGVIEW — Cowlitz County officials say they hope to avoid a legal battle like the one Grays Harbor County is fighting with its Superior Court judges about their budget, and they have good reason to be worried.
The Grays Harbor case has dragged out for more than a year and already cost the state and county more than $500,000 in legal fees. A trial is not scheduled until June, though judges recently have offered the commissioners a settlement agreement and the case has a court-approved stay until April.
Cowlitz Superior Court judges have threatened a similar lawsuit after Cowlitz County commissioners balanced the 2013 budget by directing all department heads to reduce their budgets by 5 percent. That’s roughly $270,000, and the judges say they can’t operate as required by the state without that money.
The local judges have until March 1 to reach an agreement with commissioners or sue.
Both disputes deal with the same question: Who makes the final call on a Superior Court budget? (District Court, which handles misdemeanor crimes, is not involved).
But Tom Fitzpatrick, the lawyer representing Grays Harbor County commissioners, said the are much larger implications.
Grays Harbor judges, he said, have asserted “that they alone can determine their budgetary, staffing and facility needs and (the commissioners) have no say whatsoever except to give them what they unilaterally determine they need.”
If the judges are found to have the final say in budget disputes with commissioners, they also could make the same demands of the Legislature for state funding, Fitzpatrick said. And that could end up costing everyone much more.
“If the judges prevail, it will be worse than the education funding lawsuit,” he said, referring to a State Supreme Court ruling that could cost the state $4 billion over several years.
In the schools case, Fitzpatrick said, at least the Legislature is allowed to figure out how to meet the costs. If judges have ultimate say on their budgets, though, the Legislature would have no role “other than to give what’s demanded.”
The Grays Harbor judges say they dealt with years of sub-standard budgets, including waiting 19 years for a third courtroom that still hasn’t been built. If they’re required by the state to run courts, they argue, they need to be adequately funded. Cuts to the 2012 Grays Harbor budget were the final straw.
“They believed they could no longer do what they’re required to do under the state constitution and state law,” said Seattle attorney Scott Missall, who is representing the Grays Harbor judges. He also is in the process of signing a similar contract to represent Cowlitz County’s judges.
Fitzpatrick and his partner Philip Talmadge, who is a former State Supreme Court Judge, have been retained to represent Cowlitz County commissioners to handle the other side of the negotiations at a cost of $377 an hour.
All that legal work comes at a cost — The Daily World newspaper tallied more than $400,000 in legal costs for Grays Harbor County case by October — and is somewhat ironic given that the nature of the dispute is cutting the budget.
“It’s a legitimate concern,” Fitzpatrick said. “And it should be, not only for county taxpayers but for the state as well.” (The state Attorney General’s office has paid for Missall to represent the judges in court. It’s not yet clear if the state also would pay for the Cowlitz County judges’ costs if a lawsuit is filed here).
Cowlitz County commissioners still hope they can avoid those kinds of legal costs.
They said paying for legal advice during their negotiations with the judges may well save them much more in the long run.
“They’ve spent hundreds and hundreds of thousands dollars there,” Commissioner Dennis Weber said of Grays Harbor County. “(Working to avoid such a lawsuit), I think is money well spent.”