Attorney General Rob McKenna says his office has no choice but to pay the legal bills for the Grays Harbor County Superior Court judges’ lawsuit against the county commissioners, citing a recent state Supreme Court ruling forcing him to represent state officials.
“We’ll see what the courts think about this,” McKenna said Tuesday. “It’s kind of odd. The courts ruling about the courts’ budgets. But there it is.”
Last year, McKenna lost a state Supreme Court case after he decided his office wouldn’t represent Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark in a case involving a dispute in Okanogan County. Goldmark took McKenna to court arguing the Attorney General was required to provide his office counsel, and the state Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that McKenna’s office has no choice but to represent Goldmark “in any court when so requested by the commissioner,” according to the legal opinion.
The opinion noted the duty was mandatory and McKenna “has no discretion to deny the commissioner legal representation.” 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 McKenna’s budget and $145,000 for a special deputy prosecutor to represent the commissioners.
McKenna says he knows the bills keep adding up.
“The judges threatened to sue me if I didn’t provide legal representation to them,” McKenna said. “The state Supreme Court called us over the other day to say, ‘Why are you spending this money?’ And we said, ‘You issued an opinion in the Goldmark case that I have to take a case when a state officer demands that I take it, even when I am not completely sold on the merits.’ ”
McKenna said he hasn’t dug into the details of the Grays Harbor case and, therefore, wasn’t making a judgement on the specific merits of the judges’ arguments.
Beyond funding half of the salaries for superior court judges and providing occasional grant funds for public defense, counties are responsible for the budgets of the superior court.
“I think the state will continue to fund the salaries but I don’t think there will be any big changes beyond that,” he added.
The judges filed their lawsuit in Thurston County Superior Court in December, largely over concerns that the commissioners had overstepped their authority in making budget cuts to the court. Following the shooting of Sheriff’s Deputy Polly Davin and the stabbing of Judge Dave Edwards on March 9, concerns also heightened about courthouse security, which was mentioned as a secondary issue in the judges’ suit.
Last month, the judges also filed a motion seeking a Thurston judge’s order for Grays Harbor to fulfill a promise from 1992 to build a third courtroom for the Superior Court.
The county has filed a countersuit against the state, saying that it should be the state’s responsibility to increase judicial funding.
McKenna says that counties seem to be doing a good enough job handling Superior Court budgets. He says his focus in his gubernatorial contest against Jay Inslee is on increasing education funding.