Superior Court says Sims' shutdown order violates state constitution
King County Executive Ron Sims' plan for balancing the county budget depends on shutting down nearly all government offices for 10 days next year. But one branch of government — the courts — says it can't close courtrooms without violating the state Constitution.
Seattle Times staff reporter
King County Executive Ron Sims' plan for balancing the county budget depends on shutting down nearly all government offices for 10 days next year.
But one branch of government -- the courts -- says it can't close courtrooms without violating the state constitution.
If the Superior Court obeys the constitution, Presiding Judge Bruce Hilyer says, a budget shortfall could force the court system to shut down the county's Drug Court and Family Court Services.
State Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerry Alexander has written letters to Hilyer and District Court Presiding Judge Barbara Linde telling them the constitution doesn't allow them to close courts on weekdays that aren't holidays.
Although a Supreme Court rule permits closures for severe weather or emergencies that threaten employees' welfare or safety, Alexander wrote to Hilyer, "This rule would not, in my judgment, apply to the situation that has developed in your county as you have described it to me."
Linde and Hilyer said Sims didn't ask judges for their input before he announced his plan to close all nonessential county offices on 10 days spread throughout the year and send employees home on an unpaid furlough.
Sheriff's deputies and jail guards are not included in the furlough plan, which was expected to save $15 million. Union-represented workers in other departments are voting on a tentative agreement.
Superior Court seems to be on a collision course with Sims, who is counting on savings from office closures to help offset a projected $93 million funding shortfall in 2009.
"We're still talking to them," Sims' budget director, Bob Cowan, said.
Sims has told the judges that if they don't participate in the furlough, they will have to take budget cuts equal to what the furlough would have saved. For Superior Court, that almost certainly means closing Drug Court and Family Court Services, Hilyer said.
Drug Court allows felony drug defendants to accept treatment rather than going to jail. Family Court Services helps estranged parents agree on a parenting plan and it advises judges on whether children are at risk of violence in the home.
"Family Court Services is not just good policy, we think it's essential to the operation of our court system. We've just been given unacceptable choices," Hilyer said.
District Court, which handles misdemeanors, traffic offenses and civil cases, is trying to "strike a middle ground," Linde said, by keeping judges on the bench but sending most clerks and managers home on furlough days. Phones wouldn't be answered and there would be little customer service.
"We recognize an unprecedented budget crisis and we are not self-funding," Linde said. "The courts cost money to run, and furloughing our employees saves us some costs and saves the greater county costs because we will be participating."
Linde said Sims' budget office assured her it won't ask District Court to take additional budget cuts, even though its limited furlough won't save as much money as Sims had sought.
Hilyer said Superior Court hasn't ruled out the possibility of a partial closure like the District Court's: "We're not going to be closed-minded or put blinders on. We're going to look at every possible option that would save money and still fulfill our constitutional responsibilities."
The next meeting of Superior Court's 52 judges, who will decide how to respond to the furlough plan, is Nov. 17, a week before the County Council is scheduled to adopt the 2009 budget.
Budget chief Cowan said he was "very pleased" with the District Court's furlough plan and said Superior Court must also come up with additional cost savings. "We expect to realize those savings," he said. "We're banking on those. It's part of the executive's strategy."
Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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