YAKIMA — When Yakima County court commissioner Gayle Harthcock is laid off next month, her job of handling the family court docket — parental custody and divorce cases — will fall to the eight judges and two remaining court commissioners.
The loss of Harthcock’s position, part of a 2013 county budget cut, is one more example of a series of cuts in the last few years that judges say is taking them down a dangerous road: the inability to meet constitutional and statutory mandates for assuring justice, namely fair and speedy trials for defendants. For example, some 22 murder trials have to be scheduled to start between now and April.
What’s more, cuts in the courts have resulted in fewer than a dozen employees at the end of 2011. In contrast, Thurston County has a court staff of 26 and Kitsap County has 21, both comparably sized counties.
In Yakima County, judges do their own copying. There are no clerks or secretaries to research and help prepare opinions. Two interpreters cover the entire court calendar, half of what was available just a few years ago. Meanwhile, the heavy workload continues.
As a result, judges from Superior and District courts have asked Yakima County commissioners for a meeting to discuss the separation of powers doctrine, which recognizes two principles: that the judicial and legislative branches of government are equal and that the courts are responsible for determining what is needed to operate the courts.
The situation is increasingly untenable, judges say.
“It’s like a house of cards,” presiding Judge Ruth Reukauf said. “You do the best you can as long as you can. But you pull one piece out and it comes down.”
Yakima County judges are not alone in their concern about adequately funding justice. Judges in Grays Harbor County have sued their commissioners over inadequate funding, and a potential lawsuit looms in Cowlitz County in southwest Washington.
Yakima judges say they don’t want litigation and are not asking for more money to operate the courts. What they want is enough to do their jobs.
“The judges are concerned that funding levels for the courts are becoming dangerously low to meet the rights of defendants,” said Harold Delia, administrative consultant to the Superior, District and Juvenile courts. Delia once was the administrator of juvenile courts for Grays Harbor.
“The judges want to meet with the commissioners on ways we can ensure continued funding so we don’t get jammed up with the Constitution.”
In the extreme, it is possible that lacking funding, the courts could order expenditures to administer justice — convening juries, for example — and send the bill to county commissioners.
Yakima judges have hired the same Seattle attorney who represents Grays Harbor and Cowlitz judges. Attorney Scott Missall wrote that there is a history in Yakima County of commissioners attempting to encroach into judicial branch matters and exhibiting “a continuing pattern of treating the judicial branch of government as a ‘department’ of the legislative branch.”
Examples of commissioners exceeding their power include unsuccessful attempts by commissioners to assume authority for juvenile detention — which would be unlawful; questioning how the court spends money in its own budget; and suggesting that the courthouse, and with it the courts, be closed on Fridays to save money, which would violate the state Constitution.
County commissioners said the letter appears to draw a line in the sand but that they are open to discussions.
Chairman Mike Leita said he is disappointed by the approach and that the commissioners are well aware of the separate powers and authority of the courts.
“We are mystified by this rather sudden formal approach and I think we are disappointed in some of the assertions in the letter,” Leita said. “We will welcome the direct dialogue with the judges to address their concerns within the letter.”
Judge Reukauf said she views the request for a meeting with commissioners as a positive step. She said the judges want an open dialogue with commissioners to better understand each other’s duties and responsibilities.
“We can be a leader in the state if we can bring this together with commissioners and encourage other counties to do the same so we don’t end up in the Grays Harbor or Cowlitz situation,” she said.
Litigation is an expensive attempt at a resolution.
The Grays Harbor lawsuit, filed in late 2011, has cost more than $500,000. Judges filed the suit to force the county to build a third courtroom, increase staff, provide courthouse security and require commissioners to provide “an annual budget as determined by plaintiffs to be reasonably necessary for the proper administration” of the Grays Harbor court, according to the lawsuit filed in Thurston County Superior Court.
Security is now in place in the aftermath of a judge being stabbed and a deputy shot in the same incident at the Grays Harbor County courthouse in Montesano early last year.
Cowlitz County judges have until March 1 to decide whether to sue the county commissioners there over a 2013 budget cut.
“It is entirely appropriate for the commissioners to inquire about that. The courts have to recognize there are not unlimited funds. They do,” Missall said. “There’s no one with mink-covered judicial chairs and solid granite counter tops. They are trying to do their jobs like everyone else and they don’t feel they get the respect they deserve as a coequal branch of government.”
Tom Fitzpatrick, a private attorney from Tukwila appointed as a special deputy prosecutor representing Grays Harbor County, said the Grays Harbor judges appear to want unfettered authority to determine how much money they need. He said seeking such authority represents a different kind of separation of powers issue that restricts the authority of county commissioners who must impose the taxes to support county services.
Fitzpatrick said counties are under stress from a variety of factors, including Washington providing the least amount of funding to local courts of any state in the nation.
“Local governments have, across the board, faced diminishing revenue because of the economic situation. Some are better off than others. Grays Harbor County is distressed and was severely hit by the recession,” he said. “This is a state that runs its courts on the backs of local government. The judges are now saying we don’t have adequate resources. Local government doesn’t have adequate resources. There’s the rub.”