OLYMPIA — Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Wickham on Wednesday denied a request from the Grays Harbor County commissioners to recuse himself and every other superior court judge in the state of Washington from presiding over the legal battle between the Grays Harbor County commissioners and the Grays Harbor Superior Court judges over who has the authority to set the judicial budget.
Wickham also rejected a notion offered by the attorney for the judges contending that the lawsuit filed by the judges is specific to Grays Harbor and doesn’t affect what happens in other counties.
“This does have statewide implications,” Wickham said, pointing out that all superior courts in the state rely on funding from the counties. “My understanding is whatever the result here will have statewide implications.”
Wickham said he didn’t necessarily want to preside over the case, but he simply can’t find another judge in the state of Washington willing to do it.
Wickham also agreed to review a number of recent security orders the Grays Harbor judges had issued in the wake of the March 9 attacks at the Grays Harbor County courthouse and heard extensive arguments about technical issues. Attorneys for both the commissioners and the judges said that was appropriate.
But, Wickham said he wasn’t quite sure if he wanted to tackle the issue of whether Juvenile Detention Center employees are county employees or state employees. The judges say they’re state employees; the county says they’re county employees. Wickham also wasn’t prepared to decide on the right of judges to order county staff to prevent access to judicial computers and emails from non-judicial staff. The commissioners say the judges overstepped their authority in issuing an “order of computer security” to prevent unauthorized access. The judges say they’re following the law. Wickham said those issues may need to be settled another time.
During a special hearing Wednesday morning, there was so much back and forth over technical issues that attorneys for the judges and the commissioners simply ran out of time to make their cases for whether Judge Wickham should order the commissioners to infuse the judges’ budget with $75,000 to stop the court from shutting down its operations when the court runs out of money in mid-November.
Arguments will continue at another hearing tentatively set for the week of Aug. 27.
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. The lawsuit was filed last December.
The judges are represented by Special Attorney General Scott Missall. The commissioners are represented by Special Deputy Prosecutor Tom Fitzpatrick.
The state Attorney General’s Office is also involved to defend the state and made an appearance on Wednesday before Judge Wickham, but mainly left the back and forth to Missall and Fitzpatrick.
Back in April, the commissioners filed a motion asking for the court to recuse any sitting superior court judge. At that time, Wickham wrote to both parties suggesting retired Supreme Court Justice Gerry Alexander handle the case.
But the state objected to Alexander because of a speech he once made about judicial funding. Missall, representing the judges, agreed with the state’s objection.
Wickham told the parties on Wednesday that he and his staff had spent many hours trying to find another judge from a different county or the appeals court or a district court willing to take on the case.
No luck, he said. There were no other judges out there.
Fitzpatrick suggested an appeals court judge or a district court judge might hear the case. Wickham again stressed he couldn’t find a judge willing to take it on.
“I have gone to great lengths to find another judge and have come up empty,” the judge said.”If you know of such a judge please have him call me.”
“We all face the same challenges,” Wickham added. “The District Court goes to our county commission just as we do and we all face the same challenges, and frankly, they would appreciate as much as we would some kind of guarantee of some funding level because we’ve all struggled with the same issues.”
Wickham said the parties had more than six months to come up with a pro-tem judge and hadn’t done so. Still, he agreed to certify the issue for special review. Such a maneuver allows Fitzpatrick to directly appeal Wickham’s decision to preside over the case to the state Supreme Court.
Wickham said such an appeal is “not necessary, but wise and I will support that.”
Fitzpatrick said he’d consult with the commissioners before filing an appeal.
Wickham repeatedly said he didn’t feel comfortable with continuing the case, but said he really had no other choice since no other judges are available.